Radon gas inside a house can be very hazardous. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has said that radon is the second biggest cause of lung cancer, after smoking. The reason for this danger is that radon is a radioactive compound that can cause serious health hazards over a long exposure time. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to detect this hazard without the proper equipment. Understanding the nature of radon and how to test for it can make your home a safer place.
Radon is a chemical element that is a gas at room temperature. It is produced in rocks and soils by the breakdown of trace amounts of the radioactive element uranium, which occurs naturally. Radon is also radioactive and, when inhaled, can expose the lungs to harmful radiation energy. Radon exposure can lead to health problems, including lung cancer, although the risk depends on the concentration of radon in breathing air, the exposure time and other factors.
Sources in the Home
Radon can enter a house through two main mechanisms. The first is via the soil or bedrock under and around the house. As uranium in the soil releases radon, the radon can seep into the house through floors and walls. Because most houses have limited air exchanges, the radon inside a house tends to concentrate and elevated levels can occur, especially in the basement and lower levels. Radon can also be present in water, especially well or ground water. Using the water for showering can release this radon into the air.
Signs and Symptoms
Radon is essentially impossible to detect using just your senses. It is colorless and odorless, so you cannot see or smell it. It does not have a taste either. It does not stain or discolor materials and in fact leaves no marks or evidence of its presence. The only clues you may find are signs that radon may have an entry path into your house. Possible entry ways for radon include cracks in basement floors and foundations and gaps around service pipes. However, radon can still enter even if these are not present.
Detection and Mitigation
The U.S. EPA recommends that home owners test their houses for radon. You can do a quick, short-term test yourself using a variety of simple kits, which are available for purchase. You can also do a long-term test over several months, or have a professional do the testing for you. This testing will give you a radon concentration in units of picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L). If the level is above 4 piC/L, the EPA recommends that you consider taking steps to lower radon, such as by adding a ventilation system.
About the Author
Michael Judge has been writing for over a decade and has been published in "The Globe and Mail" (Canada's national newspaper) and the U.K. magazine "New Scientist." He holds a Master of Science from the University of Waterloo. Michael has worked for an aerospace firm where he was in charge of rocket propellant formulation and is now a college instructor.