Radon: The house guest you don’t want

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Know your radon number
A home test kit for radon. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

It’s thought to be the leading cause of lung cancer among people who don’t smoke. It’s radioactive. And it could be in your house.

What is it? Radon: a naturally occurring, odorless gas.

It’s found in homes in all 50 states, including Virginia. It’s a human carcinogen and a public health risk acknowledged by the Centers for Disease Control, the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Since January is radon action month, now is a good time to take a few steps to protect your health and your family’s health against radon exposure. 

Nearly 700 cases of lung cancer in Virginia may be linked to radon every year, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Nationwide, an estimated 21,000 lung-cancer deaths are caused by radon every year, according to the the EPA.

Williamsburg, James City County and York County are generally considered low-risk areas for radon, according to Ryan Paris, the state health department’s radon coordinator and radiation safety specialist. 

Because radon is found primarily in granite, shale, metamorphic rocks and erosion, the higher-risk areas tend to be west of Virginia’s I-95 corridor. Residents there can have between a 20 percent and a 25 percent chance of an elevated reading, depending on where they are, Paris said.

Closer to the Chesapeake Bay and the coast, including the Tidewater area, the risk of elevated levels is lower, he added.

But even people who live in comparatively low-risk regions such as the Historic Triangle should not be complacent.

Some homes are built on top of gravel or fill that is brought in from the outside the area, and that non-native material could be a radon risk, Paris said.

Radon levels can change over time, as a house settles with age or cracks emerge in the foundation; even events like an earthquake could damage the foundation and allow more gas into a house.

Every two to five years, you should have your home retested, according to Paris, since that’s the only way to know for sure.

“We still encourage everybody to test,” Paris said.

And now is the time to do it, since radon levels are typically highest during the winter and radon measurements taken during the winter reflect the “worst-case scenario,” Paris said.

Radon measurements are taken in “picocuries per liter of air” or “pCi/L,” according to the EPA. The average indoor reading is roughly 1.3. Outdoors, the average is about .04. The U.S. Surgeon General and the EPA advise remediation for home radon levels at or higher than 4.0. The EPA recommends considering remediation for home levels between 2.0 and 4.0.

To do-it-yourself, radon test kits are available online

Or you can hire a professional to install a radon monitor, generally for 48 hours, but the test period can be longer. The monitor collects and measures radon, according to John Lynch, owner of Pillar to Post Home Inspectors. Lynch, a state-certified home inspector, has five years of experience as a certified radon-measurement specialist. His fee is $159 for a 48-hour reading.

If a home needs remediation, a common approach is to install a vent system to pull the gas up and out of the house with a pipe and a fan.

Think of it as a glorified vacuum cleaner, said Paris, one that comes with a price tag of about $1,000.

“It’s not a back-breaking expense,” he added.

In 2016, Lynch estimates that he found a need for remediation in about 15 percent of the tests he performed.

“It’s always a good idea to know your number, as far as radon is concerned,” he added.

For more information about radon, go to the health department’s website or the EPA’s website.