Signs of Sustainability: Test for Radon

By Guillermo Metz

Many people resolve to do something healthy with the start of each new year. Exercise, eat healthier, do yoga. We all know how long those resolutions actually last, but there’s one resolution that’s not only cheap and easy to keep, but may save your life: test your home (and business) for radon.

Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, killing more than 21,000 people in the U.S. each year—about 1,000 in New York alone. And dangerously high levels are common in the Finger Lakes area. It’s a naturally occurring, invisible and odorless gas, yet it’s easy to test your home for radon, and relatively easy to do something about it if high levels are found.

As its name suggests, radon is radioactive, forming from the natural breakdown of uranium. Radon is found in rocks and soil—and even water—and enters our living spaces through the tiniest cracks in foundations and walls. It’s constantly seeping into the air around us, but those levels are very low compared to the levels that can accumulate over time in our homes.

Any home or building can have high levels of radon, regardless of whether it has a basement or is on a slab; is wood-framed, stone, brick or block; or was built 100 years ago or last month. Radon can also be found in water. It isn’t dangerous to drink water with small amount of naturally occurring radon, but it is dangerous to breathe in as water vapor (from your shower, for example). Because it’s a gas, radon can easily move into our homes and businesses, and from there, into our lungs, where it breaks down further into dangerous elements, including lead and polonium, which wreak havoc on the cells lining our lungs and damage DNA.

There’s no way to know if your home has high levels of radon by trying to sniff it out or watch for its effects, until it’s too late. But a simple, inexpensive test kit can test for its presence. You can get a free test kit from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County or the Tompkins County Department of Health’s Healthy Neighborhoods Program (while supplies last), or purchase one from many hardware and department stores.

It takes about a minute to set up the kit—basically a small canister containing activated carbon, which collects and traps the radon over a period of time. At the end of between two and seven days, you simply seal up the kit and mail it, with the enclosed label, to a testing lab. Within a couple of weeks you’ll receive your test results (if you hire a radon tester to perform the test, in many cases, they can give you results as soon as the test is completed). Anything above 4pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air) requires action; between 2 and 4pCi/L, remediation (also called “mitigation”) is recommended; while no level is entirely without risk, below 2pCi/L is generally considered a level where remediation isn’t necessary.

It’s very easy and cheap to build a new home to be radon-resistant from the outset. But even retrofitting an existing home with a radon-remediation system isn’t particularly difficult.

Remediation can range in cost from about $500 to $5,000, depending on what’s involved, with most systems running between $1,000 and $2,500—but that’s a small price to pay to keep your family safe from this invisible, silent killer. And be sure to work with a certified radon mitigation contractor—George Schambach, president of the New York State chapter of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists and a radon inspector in the Binghamton area, estimates that as many as 60 percent of mitigation systems are not installed correctly, with 20 percent not working. Questions about radon or home indoor air quality? Call the Consumer Help Line at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County at 607-272-2292.

This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org. Guillermo Metz is the Energy Team Leader and Radon Program Coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.