January is National Radon Action Month and it is a good time for Alaskans to think about radon testing and mitigation. Radon testing is easiest and most effective in the winter months when houses are closed up for winter heating.
What is radon and where does it come from? Radon is a radioactive gas formed as a result of natural breakdown of uranium in the soil and rock. It is normally found at very low levels in outdoor air and in drinking water from rivers and lakes. It can be found at higher levels in houses and other buildings, as well as in water from underground sources such as well water.
Radon can enter a home through the floors and walls—anywhere there is contact between the home and the soil. Examples of such openings include dirt floor crawl spaces, unsealed sumps, cracks in slab-on-grade floors, utility penetrations and the tiny pore spaces in concrete block walls. A basement provides a large surface area that contacts soil material, so is a perfect place for radon to enter.
Once radon enters a home, it moves freely throughout the indoor air and people can breathe it into their lungs where it can cause cell damage that may lead to lung cancer. Radon is particularly deadly when combined with cigarette smoke. A high level of radon and a smoker in the house combine to multiply the chances of residents contracting lung cancer.
A radon test is the only way to find out how much radon is in your home. Performing a radon test on your own is easy, inexpensive and can be done privately. Every home is unique because of its local soil, construction details, maintenance and degree of depressurization. Results of your neighbor’s radon test cannot tell you if you have a radon problem.
Tests come in two types — short-term or long-term. Short-term tests are done with an activated charcoal canister and take two to three days. These tests can give you a general idea of the radon level. You can also hire a professional to bring in a piece of equipment that will continually log radon levels over a 72-hour period. Since the level of radon is variable, the UAF Cooperative Extension Service recommends using a longer testing period — usually from three weeks to three months. Extension sells these tests for $25 at district offices or they can be ordered by calling 877-520-5211.
The test kit should be placed in the lowest lived-in level of the home (for example, the basement if it is frequently used, otherwise the first floor). It should be put in a room that is used regularly, but not your kitchen or bathroom. Place the kit at least 20 inches above the floor in a location where it won’t be disturbed — away from drafts, high heat, high humidity and exterior walls. Leave the kit in place for as long as the package says. Once you’ve finished the test, reseal the package and send it to the lab specified on the package right away for analysis. You should receive your test results within a few weeks.
Because high levels of moisture can interfere with testing, homeowners in Southeast Alaska should attempt to test on a day with minimal rain and as low humidity as possible. Start the test when the house can be relatively closed up (little traffic through doors and windows remain closed), and turn off bathroom fans for the duration of the test.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends installing radon reduction systems in homes with concentrations of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or greater. However, radon levels less than 4 pCi/L still may pose a risk and may be lowered through various radon reduction systems. Radon levels can be reduced by up to 99 percent with proven methods that can be as simple as sealing cracks in your foundation and other openings. There are other methods requiring various amounts of effort, but first check your levels with a test kit today.
For more information on radon, contact Extension Energy Specialist Art Nash at 474-6366 or by email at email@example.com. See Extension publications RAD-00755, “Radon Mitigation” or RAD-01250, “Radon in Homes: The Alaska Experience,” available at www.uaf.edu/ces or contact Sarah Lewis at the Juneau Extension office, 796-6241, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Art Nash is the energy specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.