According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), January is National Radon Action Month. The purpose of designating the month is to "increase the public's awareness of radon, promote radon testing and mitigation, and advance the use of radon-resistant new construction practices." Radon can concentrate in the home, and if breathed for a prolonged period of time, can cause lung cancer. According to the US EPA, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers in America and claims the lives of about 21,000 Americans each year.
Because of the colder weather, the winter months create more of a concern with regard to possible exposure to radon – doors and windows are closed, and people stay indoors. This January is particularly concerning because of the continuing "stay-at-home" orders issued across the country due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
What is radon and how does it create a health risk? Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from the decay of uranium in the ground. Nearly all soils contain some naturally occurring uranium. According to the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors, Inc. (CRCPD), Radon 222 is the main radon isotope of health concern. It is released during the decay of uranium-238 and subsequently radium-226, which are found in varying amounts in rock, soil and groundwater. Radon undergoes radioactive decay into a series of solid radioactive decay products. A large percentage of the decay products attach to ambient airborne aerosols, while some of the decay products remain unattached.
The attachment rate depends on numerous factors, such as the size and concentration of ambient particles. Deposition of radon decay products in the lung also depends on numerous factors, including the particle size, breathing frequency, tidal volume and lung volume. Once inhaled and deposited on the bronchial epithelium, two of these solid decay products, polonium-218 and polonium-214, deliver the majority of the radiogenic dose to the lung. These alpha-emitting radon decay products have been clearly identified as the primary cause of radon-induced lung cancer.
How does radon enter my house and is my house in a high radon zone? Radon is odorless, invisible, without taste, and cannot be detected with the human senses. Radon is naturally occurring outdoors, but often is substantially concentrated indoors because homes are not normally built to be radon resistant. The potential for radon exposure varies by geographic area; however, even buildings constructed in areas considered to have low radon potential can exhibit greatly elevated radon concentrations.
The magnitude of the radon concentration indoors depends primarily on the amount of radon produced in the underlying soil and bedrock, the soil permeability, and the building's construction. The soil composition under and around a house affects radon levels and the ease with which radon migrates toward a house. Normal pressure differences between the house and the soil often create a slight vacuum in the home that can draw radon gas from the soil into the building.
Radon can enter homes and places of work from the soil through cracks in concrete floors and walls, floor drains, sump pits, construction joints, around pipe penetrations, and through tiny cracks or pores in hollow-block walls. Radon may sometimes be emitted from concrete. It can migrate through the sewer pipes and backfill material, it can migrate into drinking water or agricultural water supply wells, and then if not mitigated, will continue to accumulate. While radon concentrations generally are highest in basements and ground floor rooms that are in contact with the soil, radon levels often are high in main floor and upper floor rooms as well.
To determine where the "points of entry" are within your home or office space, it may be useful to do a little detective work and compile the information using a hazard assessment approach, similar to a Job Safety Analysis (JSA). JSA software like JSABuilder can provide you with a template to use to gather the information about your home or structure, then it will help you to start building your Radon Prevention Plan.
The health risks associated with radon are dependent on a variety of factors including where you live, how many hours per day you may be exposed, your age, health, etc. The concentration of radon in the air is measured in "picocuries per liter of air," or "pCi/L." US EPA, as well as many of the individual States, have put together interactive maps that allow the user to determine what the expected radon levels are in the county in which they live. As shown on the map below, many of the states in the northern portion of the country have higher levels of naturally occurring radon (>4 pCi/L) than many of the southern states (<2 pCi/L). The geographic areas with known concentrations of radon in excess of 4 pCi/L are designated as Zone 1; those with expected concentrations between 2 and 4 pCi/L are considered Zone 2, and those with expected radon concentrations of <2 pCi/L are identified as Zone 3.
Radon is a risk at any level. The EPA recommends fixing your home if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or more. However, some health risk remains at any level of radon:
What should I do if I live or work in Zone 2 or 3? During January, the US EPA, in partnership with various State agencies and other health-based organizations are urging people to get educated, get the word out, and take action. US EPA's National Radon Action Month webpage provides recommendations on actions that all Americans should consider implementing. The website provides the following five action items:
Test your home
US EPA and the US Surgeon General recommend that all homes in the U.S. be tested for radon. Testing is easy and inexpensive. The US EPA and many of the State agencies responsible for indoor air quality offer free radon test kits that can be quickly and conveniently used in homes and businesses to provide a better understanding of the levels of radon present at the location, and therefore a better understanding of the potential health risks.
Testing Kits may be obtained from these agencies/groups:
- The American Lung Association has both short-term and long-term radon test kits available: American Lung Association Test Kit
- The US EPA's National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University also offers discounted test kits available to purchase online: US EPA Test Kit.
- Order a test kit by phone through the National Radon Program Services. Dial: 1-800-55-RADON (557-2366).
- In California: Households can request a free test kit from the State Department of Public Health's (CDPH) partner laboratory, Alpha Energy Labs, while supplies last. Use this link: California Test Kit.
- In Oregon: The Oregon Health Authority, through their Radon Awareness Program, provides a free short term radon test kit to those living in areas of Oregon where little radon testing has been done. Use this link to see if you qualify: Oregon Test Kit.
- Free Test Kits may also be available through other State programs. The US EPA has compiled information about all of the various State Radon Programs which can be accessed using this link: State Radon Program information.
- Many radon test kits can be found online or in home improvement stores. Follow the directions on the packaging for the proper placement of the device and where to send the device after the test to find out your radon level.
Attend a National Radon Action Month event or attend a radon training course.
For example, the American Lung Association is providing their free Radon Basics course, which is a one-hour interactive online learning program designed to help people understand more about radon. The course, which is designed to be appropriate for anyone who wants to learn more about radon, also provides information on how it enters the body, how it can damage the lungs and result in cancer, as well as how to test for radon and how to fix problems.
The course is appropriate for home buyers, real estate professionals and home inspectors concerned about safe and healthy housing. Radon Basics can also equip healthcare professionals, community health workers and public environmental health educators with information they can use to encourage people to protect their health and their home. Use this link to register for the class: Radon Basics (lung.training)
Spread the word
Also, through their partnership with Kansas State University (KSU) , the US EPA has compiled an extensive assortment of radon resources, activities, contractors, educators, etc. KSU is a partner in the Midwest Universities Radon Consortium, and implements the National Radon Program Services, including the National Radon Poster Contest, National Radon Hotlines, and Referrals to State Radon Programs, Radon Test Kit Coupons, Radon Mitigation Promotion and other outreach activities. KSU includes information about what radon test results mean, how to mitigate radon, information about radon-resistant new construction, consumer publications, educational resources, and a host of other useful links.
Spend time during National Radon Action Month encouraging others to learn about radon and test their homes.
- Tell your family and friends about the health risk of radon. Encourage them to test their homes.
- Plan an activity in your community to help raise awareness.
- Write an op-ed or letter to the editor using samples from the event planning resources.
- Attract media attention by working with a local official to get a radon proclamation.
- View or order EPA's free radon publications.
Buy a radon-resistant home
It is much easier and much less expensive to design and construct a new building with radon-resistant and/or easy-to-mitigate features, than to add these features after the building is completed and occupied. If you are moving into a new area, check the radon levels in the area, then if possible, buy a home that has been built to be radon-resistant home. EPA also recommends that during January, you read more about radon-resistant new construction: "Building Radon Out: A Step-by-Step Guide to Build Radon-Resistant Homes." US EPA states that it is easy to build new homes radon-resistant. They have developed a step-by-step guide for building a home that will protect the residents from radon. In the guidebook, the author states that:
"The good news is you can build your customers a safer, healthier, radon-resistant home. The techniques to prevent radon from entering a home are practical and straightforward for any builder. It's an inexpensive way to offer families a benefit that could reduce their risk of lung cancer. And it's a smart way to build trust between you and your customer." (Fuad Reveiz, Member of the National Association of Home Builders.)
What do I do if my radon test results show that the radon concentration is >4 pCi/L? EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that homes with radon levels at 4 pCi/L or higher should be fixed. EPA also recommends that Americans consider fixing their homes for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L. Based on a national residential radon survey completed in 1991, the average indoor radon level is about 1.3 pCi/L in the United States. The average outdoor level is about 0.4 pCi/L.
The approach, and the associated costs, of making repairs to your home or business to reduce the radon level depends on several factors, including the construction of the building. Homes with crawl spaces will be managed differently than those that are constructed with slab on grade. An initial "hazard assessment" should be done by the home-owner or business owner to 1) gather details (blueprints) about the construction of the structure, and 2) to identify all subgrade piping and access points (drains, sumps, underground tanks or vaults, HVAC intakes and outputs, electrical conduits, etc.) Using hazard assessment software, such as JSABuilder, can make this process easier. By developing a "job safety analysis" or "activity hazard analysis," the building/home-owner will be encouraged to gather all of the necessary details, and to develop a written strategy to address the potential areas where radon may be entering the building, or the "hazard points."
Once all of the hazard points, or possible points of entry have been identified, the homeowner or building operator may want to employ a licensed/certified radon testing company to do a more thorough radon evaluation. Each state has different requirements for testers. For example, in California, the State Department of Public Health administers the California Radon Program which certifies all radon service providers operating in California. California law requires all radon professionals to be approved by either the National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) or National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). The California Radon Program website provides listings of certified testers as well as mitigators who have met their board requirements and have met specific California Contractors License requirements. Check with your State for support and requirements.
How can my home be made radon resistant? US EPA has a lot of great resources for learning about mitigation measures including their publication called Radon Prevention in the Design & Construction of Schools and Other Large Buildings. EPA recommends the following three radon prevention techniques for construction of schools and other large buildings in radon-prone areas: (1) install an active soil depressurization (ASD) system, (2) pressurize the building using the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, and (3) seal major radon entry routes. The manual not only provides general information for those who need background information on the indoor radon problem and techniques currently being applied but also provides comprehensive information, instructions, and guidelines about the various construction techniques presented, in sufficient detail for use by architects, engineers, and builders responsible for the specific construction details.
US EPA, as well as most States, provide listings or contact numbers to find a qualified mitigation contractor. Start here to find what you need: https://www.epa.gov/radon
Radon may be a serious health risk depending on where you live. The US EPA, along with most States, have extensive resources to help homeowners and business owners/operators define and manage the associated risks. Information in readily available to 1) determine if you should test, 2) how to obtain a test or hire a testing company, 3) interpret the results and possible health effects, and 4) hire a mitigation specialist who will help make your home or place of business radon-resistant.
January is the perfect time to implement your Radon Prevention Program!!