Informing the public about radon is part of Mike Lunsford’s job. But it’s also personal.
In 2006, Lunsford’s brother-in-law and longtime friend, Eddie Metcalfe, was diagnosed with lung cancer. “We were all just shocked to learn that,” says Lunsford. Metcalfe’s thoracic surgeon asked if he had his home tested for radon. He had not even thought of it—until then. “So that was the first order of business after the immediate shock of what he had to deal with.” The test indicated that the radon level in his home was about nine times the EPA recommended level to take action. Two days later, Metcalfe’s home was mitigated. After undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Metcalfe currently is doing well, Lunsford says. (See Eddie’s Story or order PSA here.)
Now, as Radon Specialist for the North Carolina Radiation Protection Section of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Lunsford appreciates the fact that radon awareness can save lives.
Radon is a naturally occurring, invisible, odorless radioactive gas that comes from deposits of uranium in soil, rock and water. It is a radioactive decay product of radium, which is a decay product of uranium. Uranium and radium are both common elements in soil.
Outdoors, radon is harmless. But concentrated levels of radon trapped in homes can cause lung cancer.
“It’s a potential danger to us,” Lunsford says, “because it is radioactive. When we inhale it, it releases radioactive energy that can damage our lungs over a long period of time. It’s a gas that comes from the earth. So the way it gets into our homes is through cracks and penetrations around foundations and slabs.” It can also enter through pipes and other plumbing. “It is concentrated because our homes are well insulated, oftentimes. So the radon really has no place to go.”
The natural flow of air circulating in our homes is that—as warm air rises—air from under our homes is pulled in. That rising warm air is the driving force that pulls radon into our homes, explains Lunsford.
“That rising warm air creates a vacuum on the bottom of your house’” he says. “That…for lack of a better word, sucks the air—including the radon—from the soil into your home.”
Exposure to high concentrations of radon for an extended period of time greatly increases the risk of lung cancer. And the risk for smokers and former smokers exposed to radon is particularly alarming due to the synergistic effects of radon and smoking. The combination creates a risk that significantly exceeds the sum of both risk factors, according to the Environment Protection Agency. (See the EPA website.)
We cannot eliminate radon completely from our environment. But we can reduce our exposure to it and decrease our risk for developing lung cancer. Anyone can be at risk.
“Nobody is completely immune from radon-induced lung cancer,” says Lunsford.
Even so, some geographic areas have high amounts of uranium, a lot of granite and have the potential for higher concentrations of radon, Lunsford says.
“The EPA has published a map that is broken down into three very basic categories,” he says. “Zone 1 predicts a high potential for radon concentrations. Zone 2 predicts a moderate potential and Zone 3 predicts a lower potential for elevated radon concentrations.”
Lunsford warns that these predictions should not be used for individual homeowners to make decisions.
“We’ve actually found elevated levels of radon in homes in all three zones,” he explains. People should not neglect testing because they consider themselves to be in a safe zone. “You don’t want to take a chance when testing is so easy.
“The absolute only way to know (if the radon level is high) is to have your home tested,” says Lunsford. “It’s a very easy and inexpensive process. And it’s a good measurement technique.”
Short-term radon test kits are available online, hardware stores or home improvement stores and cost approximately $10-$20.
“Most of these kits come with self-addressed labels,” Lunsford says. “You stick it in the mail. It goes to the lab. The lab does the analysis and gets the result to you. So, for less than 20 bucks…that’s a good deal.”
Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), a measurement of radioactivity. The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that homes with radon levels at or above 4 pCi/L be repaired to reduce the amount of radon entering the indoor air. If the initial short-term test indicates there is a problem, the next step is to verify those results with another test.
“The first thing you should do is do a follow-up test,” advises Lunsford. “It can be another short-term test or it can be a long-term test. There are advantages and disadvantages to both of those.”
Short-term tests can be completed in less than a week, compared to more than 90 days for long-term tests. The longer time is a more accurate measurement of your average annual radon exposure, because radon risk is based on long-term exposure, not short-term exposure, Lunsford explains. But a long-term test is not always practical, for example, during a real estate transaction.
“If the follow-up test still indicates high radon concentrations, mitigation is necessary,” Lunsford says. “You need to contact a qualified radon mitigator to see what the problem is and correct that problem.”
The easiest solution for controlling radon levels is to prevent it from coming into your home.
“Radon doesn’t stay around long,” explains Lunsford. “Physically, its half-life is about 3 ½ days. So if you eliminate it from coming into your home, you can reduce the concentration fairly rapidly in your home.”
To prevent it from entering your home, remove the radon pathways, he advises. Make sure your home is well sealed and repair any cracks in your foundation, plumbing areas and wherever your home is exposed to soil.
Another method for reducing radon levels is removing radon from the soil before it enters your home. This method usually involves a vent pipe system and fan, which pulls radon from beneath the house and vents it to the outside.
“The vast majority of mitigation processes is a combination of these two steps—sealing your home and removing the soil gas before it enters your home,” Lunsford says.
Most mitigation costs range between $1,200-$2,200, depending on several factors, including the extent of the mitigation, size of the home, whether there’s a basement, crawl space or slab and other factors.
Another method of preventing a radon problem is during the construction of a new home, called Radon Resistant New Construction. It involves an easy to install technique for removing radon from the soil under the home.
“The cost for doing this is about $500,” explains Lunsford. “So it’s miniscule when you think of the overall cost of construction of a home. It’s going to cost three, four, maybe five times that much if you find a problem later and have to fix it.”
Finding a qualified technician to mitigate your home is easy, too. Lunsford recommends certified technicians from the National Environmental Health Association or the National Radon Safety Board. (Visit the above links to locate a certified radon mitigator in your area.)
“You’d want to approach this like you would approach hiring any professional for work around your home. Check references. Contact those people and see if they were happy with the results.” Also, make sure they have liability insurance, he adds.
“Anybody and everyone should test their homes for radon,” says Lunsford. “If you’re buying a home, obviously, you want to have the home tested for radon because it’s a potential health hazard for you and your family.”
Lunsford suggests home buyers ask themselves the following question: Would you buy a home with faulty wiring that could cause a home fire? The EPA estimates up to 2,800 people will die from home fires. And, yet, 21,000 people will die from radon-induced lung cancer. (See chart.)
Selling or buying a home without a smoke detector or fire alarm is close to impossible, says Lunsford; whereas, a radon test is not necessarily required.
It’s a good idea to test your home, even if you’re only considering selling, Lunsford says. Although “it may not be as obvious to those people who are motivated to sell their home,” many buyers are aware of and concerned about radon. If you wait until closing, it could be a deal breaker. Then again, testing and/or mitigating could be a good selling point.
Regardless of whether you are buying or selling, everyone should test their home for radon, according to Lunsford. He suggests going to the EPA website for more information, including A Citizen’s Guide to Radon.
“You can find publications that can answer many, many questions that you might have about radon and its health effects, how to measure it, how to fix it. Contact your local radon group. I’m in North Carolina. We have a radon group here. Other states have very similar programs and some counties and health departments have information regarding radon and its health effects and how to have your home tested.
“Keep radon on your radar. Share the things you learn with people you care about. By all means, have your home tested, if you haven’t already. If it needs fixing, take that step and fix it. It’s worth it.”
—by Dusty Donaldson