Homework with Mitch Kuffa: RADON

By Mitch Kuffa

Let’s talk about radon. Our office constantly receives inquiries about radon and in general, most people don’t know anything about this invisible potential hazard. Here is some information from the Michigan Department of Public Health and the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency as it relates to radon.

Radon comes from the natural breakdown (radioactive decay) of uranium. Radon can be found in high concentrations in soils and rocks containing uranium, granite, shale, phosphate, etc. Radon may also be found in soils contaminated with certain types of Industrial wastes, such as the byproducts from uranium or phosphate mining.

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In outdoor air, radon is diluted to such low concentrations that it is usually nothing to worry about. However, once inside an enclosed space (such as a home) radon can accumulate. Indoor levels depend both on the building’s construction and the concentration of radon in the underlying soil.

The only know health effect associated with exposure to elevated levels of radon is an increased risk of developing lung cancer. Not everyone exposed to elevated levels of radon will develop lung cancer, and the time between exposure and the onset of the disease may be many years.

Your risk of developing lung cancer from exposure to radon depends upon the concentration of radon and the length of time you are exposed. Exposure to a slightly elevated radon level for a long time may present a greater risk of developing lung cancer than a significantly elevated level for a short time. In general, your risk increases as the level of radon and the length of exposure increase.

Radon has always been present in the air. Concern about elevated indoor concentrations first arose in the late 1960’s when homes were found in the West that had been built with materials contaminated by waste from uranium mines. Since then, cases of high indoor radon levels resulting from industrial activities have been found in many parts of the country. We have become aware, however, that houses in various parts of the U.S. may have high indoor radon levels caused by natural deposits of uranium in the soil on which they are built.

No, most houses in this country are not likely to have a radon problem; but relatively few houses do have highly elevated levels. The dilemma is that, right now, no one knows which houses have a problem and which do not.

Radon is a gas which can move through small spaces in the soil and rock on which a house is built. Radon can seep into a home through dirt floors, cracks in concrete floors and walls, floor drains, sumps, joints, and tiny cracks or pores in the hollow-block walls. Radon also can enter water within private wells and be released into a home when the water is used. Usually, radon is not a problem with large community water supplies, where it would likely be released into the outside air before the water reaches a home. In some unusual situations, radon may be released from the materials used in the construction of a home. For example, this may be a problem if a house has a large stone fireplace or has a solar heating system in which heat is stored in large beds of stone. In general, however, building materials are not a major source of indoor radon.

Since you cannot see or smell radon, special equipment is needed to detect it. The two most popular, commercially-available radon detectors are the charcoal canister and the alpha tract detector. Both of these devices are exposed to the air in your home for a specified period of time and sent to a laboratory for analysis. You can purchase a test kit at your local hardware store or builders supply, set it up yourself per instructions provided, mail it to a laboratory in a envelope provided and get the results in a few days.

Your risk of lung cancer from exposure to radon depends upon the amount of radon entering your home and the length of time it remains in your living areas. Listed below are some actions you might take to immediately reduce your risk from radon. These actions can be done quickly and with minimum expense in most cases.

Stop smoking and discourage smoking in your home. By doing so, you should reduce your family’s overall chance of developing lung cancer, as well as reducing you family’s risk from radon exposure.

Spend less time in areas with higher concentrations of radon, such as the basement.

Whenever practical, open all windows and turn on fans to increase the air flow into and through the house. This is especially important in the basement.

If your home has a crawl space beneath, keep the crawl space vents on all side the house fully open, when weather permits and make sure there is a plastic type vapor barrier over the dirt (with as few seams as possible).

If radon is detected, take a second test to verify results and if levels are still high, talk to a licensed abatement contractor as to options available to normalize the condition.

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