Radon Facts and Myths to Keep Your Home And Family Safe

Much like anything else you want to learn more details about, there is a lot of information out there regarding radon. Whether you want to know more about radon gas, radon poisoning, how to get rid of radon, or where radon comes from there is probably a website that is ready to supply all of the radon facts you need. And probably even some providing details you didn’t even know you needed.

All of the information can be a little overwhelming and you may even find some conflicting facts and evidence. If you are concerned about radon in your home, it may be a good idea to go straight to a trained radon professional rather than diagnose the problem on your own via the internet. However, if you just have a few questions you have come to the right place.

Below you will find some of the most common questions and detailed facts you will need on the subject of radon. It is organized in a way so you can compare the facts to some common radon myths. If you still have questions or fear that you may be exposed to radon, contact a testing and mitigation expert to help you decide if something needs to be done in your home to reduce radon levels.

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What is Radon?

Fact: Radon is a gas. It is created by the natural breakdown of uranium that is present in soil, rock, and water in the ground. As this breakdown occurs a single atom gas is formed which is radioactive and can easily make its way into the air we breathe and into the fresh water we drink. When we breath in these particles they cause damage to lung tissue. With enough exposure the chance of lung cancer increases.

Fact: Radon is element number 86 on the periodic table of elements with an atomic radius of 1.34 angstroms. It is the heaviest of the known gases and is considered a noble gas. It occurs in several various forms, the most prevalent being radon-222. When radon-222 decays it does so in a sequence which creates radon decay products. These products are radioisotopes of heavy metals such as polonium and lead which easily attach to materials in the air such as dust particles. Since these particles are constantly being inhaled there is no way to be completely protected from radon inhalation.

Myth: Radon only occurs in homes with old, deteriorating basements. While it is true that radon can seep in more easily through basements with bare floors or cracked and damaged concrete, because of its chemical make-up it can leak in virtually anywhere.

Fact: Radon is everywhere and is unavoidable. It becomes dangerous when people are exposed to it for long periods of time and in confined spaces where it cannot easily disperse into the air. While radon is virtually undetectable due to its being scentless, colorless, and tasteless its damaging effects do not go unnoticed. It is a cancer-causing gas and is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

How Does Radon Get into My Home?

Myth: Radon is a major problem only in old houses. Many people are under the assumption that if they build a brand new house or buy a house that is only a few years old that they are safe from radon gas. They may be under the false pretense that because current building practices are more advanced that basements and exterior are more impenetrable.

Fact: Radon can be present in any home or building. It makes no difference if the structure is brand new or very old. With or without a basement, radon gas comes from the ground and can become airborne so it can make its way inside any home. It also makes no difference if your home is drafty or well-sealed.

Even though it seems a little counterproductive since keeping radon out means making sure basements are well sealed, it’s also important to have a home that is well ventilated to let radon out. Most homes trap radon inside where it can accumulate thus leading to the negative effects on health.

Fact: Since it is a gas comprised of a single atom, radon’s ability to infiltrate a variety of materials is much higher than gases made up of multiple atoms such as oxygen, O2, which is made up of two atoms. While radon typically finds its way into homes through cracks or holes in a foundation it has the ability to penetrate through paper, plastic, sheetrock, wood, and insulation.

This fact can be a little frightening because it seems that there is no way to keep radon out of our homes. While this is true, the only thing we really can do is reduce the amount that is entering our homes. Since its formation occurs in the ground, the majority of radon will enter through parts of the house that have contact with dirt and rock.

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Fact: The most common entrances for radon gas are through cracks in the floor or walls of basements, bare floored crawl spaces, construction joints, and gaps around pipes coming in from outside. Basements with sump pump systems are also more prone to radon gas seeping in through dirt pits. Furthermore, this dangerous gas can also be found in a water supply, especially if that water comes from an outdoor well instead of a water treatment system.

Fact: The United States EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has reported that in an area of seven tested states, almost 1 in 3 homes had radon levels that were over the recommended level for exposure. While you can be exposed to radon in any type of building including your home, school, or office, the home is the most common place to succumb to the negative effects since it where you spend the majority of your time. This is why it is so important that if you suspect any amount of radon in your home you should consider having it tested.

What are the Health Risks of Radon Exposure?

Even before scientists were able to discover and study the radiation that results from the breakdown of uranium, radon gas was causing health problems in those with long-term exposure. It was first referred to as wasting disease and was occurring primarily in miners who spent nearly all of their time underground. They showed symptoms such as difficulty breathing, unwavering coughs as well as coughing up blood.

By the late 1800’s, scientists were able to identify this wasting disease as lung cancer. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1900’s, after many studies by physicists Ernest Rutherford and Ernst Dorn, that they were able to connect the harmful effects of radioactive radon to lung cancer sufferers.

Myth: You will know when you have been exposed to radon gas. There will be symptoms and signs that tell you there’s a problem in your home and give you clues that something needs to be done.

Fact: The above myth is dangerously untrue. One of the unfortunate characteristics of radon gas is that it is virtually undetectable. It has no smell, color, or taste. And by the time individuals discover that it is present in their home it may already be too late.

After inhaling radon gas, it can actually build up in the body over time which leads to cell mutations. This build-up happens gradually and people can be exposed to high levels of the gas for several years without even knowing it. By the time they discover any symptoms such as reoccurring respiratory infections, breathing difficulties or incessant coughing, lung cancer may have already taken hold.

Myth: It is uncertain whether the connection between radon and lung cancer is scientifically valid.

Fact: Although there are, and always will be, scientists that disagree about the number of lung cancer sufferers and deaths due to radon, there is no question that exposure to radon gas is linked to lung cancer. Every major health organization in the nation including the American Lung Association, American Medical Association, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and even the Surgeon General can agree that radon is linked to thousands of deaths every year due to lung cancer.

Because of the extensive data that has been collected through animal studies, human data, and a comprehensive understanding of how radon affects those exposed, it has been rated as a Class A carcinogen. It is the number one leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer in those who do smoke.

Fact: According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Surgeon General, there are approximately 20,000 lung cancer deaths caused by radon each year. Deaths that could have been prevented if people had the knowledge and took the necessary steps to avoid being exposed. Smokers are among those at the highest risk along with children who are believed to be more sensitive to radon. This could be partly due to the fact that their cells divide more rapidly so affected, cancerous cells spread faster or a higher respiration rate than adults.

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How Do I Find Out if My Home has a Radon Problem?

Radon is a nationwide problem that has been causing heath issues for hundreds of years. It has been discovered that there are elevated radon levels present in every state thanks to studies done by the EPA. They have also found that 1 in 5 households have higher than acceptable radon levels. This is more than 8 million residences across the United States. For those that live in Iowa, the entire state is considered to be at a high risk for radon gas within our homes.

So what should you do? The only way to find out if you’re at risk is to have your home tested. Simple do-it-yourself kits can be purchased at most local hardware stores. Or you could choose to hire a radon professional such as Central Iowa Radon. It is a smart practice for nearly everyone to find out what the radon levels are in your home so you can either take the necessary steps to reduce exposure or so you can simply have peace of mind that you aren’t living in a toxic environment.

Myth: Short-term radon tests are unreliable and longer tests are time-consuming, complicated, and expensive. Most people assume that hiring a professional to test radon levels is the only solution. They also believe that these professionals will charge an arm and a leg because they know families will do whatever it takes to protect themselves from harmful substances in the home.

Fact: Radon levels in the home can vary significantly over a given period of time. During the spring and summer months if windows and doors are being opened frequently, radon levels can be lower because they are able to escape and disperse in the outside air. On the flip side, winter months can display higher radon levels because homes stay closed up to keep out the cold.

Although the levels vary under these circumstances, even a short term radon test will prove if there’s enough gas to pose a health threat. The EPA recommends that action be taken to reduce radon levels if it reaches a concentration of 4.0 pCi/L (Picocuries per liter). A short term test may never reach that level but if it comes close it is enough of an indication to at least consider a system for radon reduction. The target for radon levels is 0.4 pCi/L. Most homes that already have an elevated level will never reach that target, but a good mitigation system can assist in getting it well below 2.0 pCi/L.

Myth: If your neighbor’s house tests high for radon, your home probably has a problem as well. Some people hear that others in the neighborhood have a radon issue and automatically assume their house is harboring the harmful gas as well. They think that since the houses are built in the same soil or are sitting on the same type of rock then the amount of radon must be the same.

Fact: Radon levels can in fact vary by a significant amount from house to house. The only way to know for sure if your home has a problem is to have it tested either with a simple at-home kit or by a skilled professional. If you live in the Des Moines or central Iowa area, Central Iowa Radon can help with testing and can also recommend mitigation systems or further steps to take.

Myth: Everyone should also have their water tested for radon.

Fact: It is possible for radon to make its way into your home through your water supply. However, this occurrence is much less likely than it being present in the air and is also less harmful than the airborne radon gas. If you have a test that proves levels are high in the air than you may also want to have the water tested. Public water suppliers will come to your home to complete this test.

If you live in a home with a private well you are at a higher risk since the water is coming directly from the ground and not being treated in a water treatment plant. If this is the case you can contact the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791 and they will provide information on how to have your water tested.

How Does Radon Exposure Affect My Home?

Obviously the affects that radon exposure has on your family and their health is a much larger concern than how it affects the structure of your home. However, when it comes to buying or selling a home, radon levels tend to become a big concern and can often deter potential buyers if nothing is done to remedy the problem.

Myth: Once your home tests positive for radon there is nothing you can do to fix it.

Fact: There are numerous options available when it comes to fixing a home that is exposed to high levels of radon. Many of these options are pretty simple and not any more expensive than other minor home repairs. However, the solution to a radon problem can vary by how large the problem is. You’ll have to take into consideration the age of your home, how high the radon levels are, and how the radon is coming in.

A radon specialist will help you determine the appropriate course of action for fixing your specific problem and how to lower radon levels. It is recommended that you use a professional as opposed to doing it yourself so that you do not put money and time into something that may or may not eliminate the problem. Several options include:

  • Hepa filters – this is an air filter that is designed to remove radioactive molecules from the air
  • Mitigation systems – these systems can decrease the concentration of radon by up to 80% or more. They create air pressure inside and outside of the house which helps redirect the gas from the soil under your house into the air outside.
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  • Ventilation – this can be as simple as installing some fans in your basement or crawlspace to bring fresh air in that will help lower radon concentration
  • Sealing – this is the least expensive and least time-consuming option as all you need to do is seal cracks and gaps in floors, walls or around pipes

Myth: It is impossible to sell a home with a radon problem.

Fact: While it is true that many home buyers may be turned off by a home with known high concentration levels of radon, selling these homes is not impossible. First, because nearly every home has higher than acceptable radon levels and second because it’s an easy fix. If you are trying to sell your home and discover it has a problem, you’ll want to do what is necessary to remedy the issue. A newly installed mitigation system could actually prove to be a great selling point.

What Should I Do Next?

First of all, don’t panic. Our point in providing these radon gas myths and facts is not to cause unwarranted stress about whether or not your home is safe or your family is being exposed to carcinogens. You are exposed to thousands of cancer-causing elements every day and only when they are in high concentrations do they cause a serious problem.

If you are concerned about radon levels, you can start by purchasing an in-home testing kit. They come in short and long-term versions that can take as little as 2-7 days or as many as 90 days. Typically, long-term kits are more reliable because they test levels over time. Whereas short term kits might test on days when radon levels are higher than normal.

After doing a home testing kit you discover that your radioactive levels are close to the 4.0 pCi/L that are cause for concern then call a radon professional. If this seems like an expensive option, consider the health costs you could encounter if your family continues to be exposed to such high concentrations of the gas. No amount of time, heartache and pain is worth the small amount of money it could take to prevent lung cancer.

Watch for signs and symptoms of radon poisoning. If you or members of your family have suffered from chronic breathing problems, frequent coughs, or numerous respiratory infections this may be a sign or radon overexposure. These symptoms never arise immediately so they are usually signs that radon has been an issue in your home for a long time already. However, they could be completely unrelated and be a sign of another health issue. Whatever the case, see a doctor if symptoms persist.

While radon in the home can cause serious health problems, the good news is that the problem can be fixed and even reversed. Once you have taken the measures to reduce radon gas in the home it will also slow down the buildup of airborne particles in the lungs. As long as cell mutations haven’t already begun, lung cancer can be avoided.

If you have further questions or concerns about these radon gas facts, you can easily locate a home inspector or radon specialist that is willing and able to provide more valuable information. For readers in the central Iowa area, Central Iowa Radon is your testing and mitigation experts. They can be found at their website www.centraliaradon.com or by calling them at 515-661-4304.

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