Did you know that a simple test in your home could help prevent the second leading cause of lung cancer? If you haven’t already done so, Flour Sack Mama encourages you to test your home for radon. This naturally occurring gas can sneak into the places where we live, learn and work. Radon is produced from decaying radium released from uranium ore the ground. More energy efficient homes built in recent decades may do a better job of trapping this gas inside, risking our air quality. Conservative estimates say approximately 21,000 people die each year from radon-induced lung cancer. Cancer risk gets even higher if someone is exposed to both radon and tobacco smoking, the leading lung cancer killer.
The known risk of radon is really nothing new. Perhaps most surprising is that despite long-held public knowledge about this cancer risk, so little is done about it. The President’s Cancer Panel mentions the dangers of radon exposure in its latest annual report. The report notes that current public policies about dealing with radon are mostly outdated, with little enforcement of radon testing and prevention. The Environmental Protection Agency has long provided public information about how and when to test for radon. The Office of the US Surgeon General issued a health advisory on radon back in 2005.
The World Health Organization in 2009 recommended that the highest acceptable level of radon in a home be 2.7 picocuries per liter of air. When this was compared to the current action level recommended by the EPA of 4.0 pci/l, the EPA responded that the public should understand that no level of radon exposure is considered safe. Scientist Brian Hanson, who helps run a national EPA call line as well as the state radon program at Kansas State University, says while most homes can be built or retrofitted to keep levels under the EPA’s 4.0 pci/l action level, it would be more difficult or even impossible to get the levels in all homes under 2.7 pci/l. Hanson says there has been enough peer-reviewed studying of radon’s effects in recent years to have a clear understanding of radon’s danger as a known carcinogen.
Your first step in checking your home is typically to purchase an inexpensive canister testing kit that you will place indoors for a short time. You can check with your own state’s radon office or your local health department for a possible free or reduced price testing kit. Many home improvement stores sell basic charcoal testing kits. Or you may be able to purchase one online. Be sure to follow closely the instructions for keeping the home closed during testing to ensure accurate results. The kit and EPA guidelines will instruct you further on what can be done if your results come back above the recommended 4.0 pci/l action level, or even if the results fall within the 2 to 4 pci/l range. For instance, there is a long-term test that Hanson explains is accurate when it runs for three to six months inside the home. Some states now have contractors with various qualifications to help reduce the radon levels in your home or to build new homes with radon-reducing techniques. Hanson says that if the testing shows your home has low levels of radon, there is usually no need to test again unless you do something involving the construction or ventilation systems that changes the indoor air flow. However, if you found levels that required remediation for radon in your home, “the standard is to retest every two years.”
Before you disregard the need to test because you have a newly built or newly purchased home, be aware that standards vary so widely that you need to check on a case by case basis. It may be that the builder of your home used the latest EPA-recommended construction techniques. Ask for specifics, and ask to see results of a test. The professional trade group the National Association of Realtors does not take an official stance on radon testing. Per public affairs spokesperson Leanne Jernigan, “In areas of the country with high levels of radon we encourage our members to disclose this with their buyers and provide information on how to get the testing done.” Responsibility for testing often falls under the category of “buyer beware.” Government recommendations are that all homes be tested for radon, no matter where you live.