The surgeon general's other warning: Radon causes lung cancer
Radon kills about 20,000 Americans each year. It's the nation's second leading cause of lung cancer, and the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
A colorless and odorless radioactive gas, radon is produced from the decay of uranium, which occurs naturally in most soil. The gas is almost always present at low levels in the outside air; it only becomes a health concern if it gets trapped inside a building. Radon can enter a house from well water and sometimes from building materials like granite and other stone. But the main source of radon pollution is from the soil beneath the home.
The only way to tell if radon is present in your home is to test for it. The U.S. EPA and surgeon general recommend testing all homes below the third floor. Here's what you need to know:
- Do it yourself. You can test your home using an inexpensive kit available online and from many hardware stores. For the first test, buy a short-term test kit. It will typically consist of a small charcoal canister that you keep in your home for two days or longer. You'll need to keep your windows and outside doors closed as much as possible during the testing period. Then mail the kit to the address indicated on the package. A laboratory will mail the results back to you, along with an explanation of what the results mean.
- If the test results are high, test again. Radon levels in a given home vary from day to day and season to season. If the short-term test results show more than 4 picoCuries of radon per liter of air (pCi/L), it's a good idea to do a long-term test. Long-term tests are more accurate because they average the radon levels over 90 days or more. You can buy a long-term test kit at a hardware store or online, or you can hire a qualified radon tester. If the long-term test confirms radon levels above 4 pCi/L, it's a smart idea to fix your home.
- Fix your home. Retrofitting most homes to reduce radon levels isn't complicated, but you'll probably want to hire a state-certified radon mitigation contractor. A basic mitigation system consists of a pipe and a fan that pulls radon from below your house and vents it to the outside, typically through the roof. The cost of reducing radon in a home ranges from about $800 to $2,500, according to the EPA. Contact your state's radon office to find a certified radon mitigation contractor.
These days, many new homes are built to be "radon resistant." In such homes, builders have put plastic sheeting under the slab or over the crawl space floor, sealed and caulked all cracks and openings in the foundation, and installed a vent pipe. Before buying a house (whether or not it has radon-resistant features), ask for its radon test results or request that a test be conducted.
...to your health
When you breathe air that's contaminated with radon, radioactive particles can damage your lungs. Smokers exposed to high levels of radon have a particularly high risk of getting lung cancer, but radon can cause cancer in non-smokers too.
Not everyone exposed to elevated levels of radon will get lung cancer, but why take the chance? It's easy and inexpensive to test for radon. And it's not complicated to have your home fixed if radon is a problem.
...to your wallet
You can buy radon test kits online and from hardware stores. The National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization, sells short-term test kits for $9.95 and long-term test kits for $20; the price includes laboratory analysis. Prices for tests by professional radon testers vary depending on the type of testing device used, travel distances, and other factors, but expect to pay $100 to $150.
Procrastination. Avoid the potential long-term effects of radon pollution by testing your home now. If you find your radon levels are in the danger zone, fix the problem as promptly as possible.
- If a home is being tested as part of a real estate transaction, hire a qualified professional to conduct the radon test so that the seller and potential buyers have confidence in the test results. Contact your state's radon office to locate nearby radon testing contractors.
- For more information about testing for radon and fixing a radon problem, visit the EPA's radon website or call 1-800-SOS-RADON.