What is Radon?
Understanding Radon and Radon Exposure Risks
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in the rock and soil. It’s cancer-causing. You can’t see, smell, or taste it.
The amount of radon gas in the air is measured in picocuries per liter of air, or pCi/L.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon gas decays into radioactive particles. These tiny particles can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe. As they break down, these particles release small bursts of energy that can damage the cells that line your lungs and lead to lung cancer.
Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and the second-leading cause among smokers, according to the EPA. Radon is estimated to cause more than 20,000 deaths in the United States every year.
Exposure to radon in adults and children is also suspected to cause an increase in risk of leukemia and Alzheimer’s, but the evidence is not yet conclusive.
Some scientific studies indicate children may be more sensitive to radon. This may be due to their higher respiration rate and their rapidly dividing cells.
Lung cancer typically doesn’t have any symptoms in its early stages. When symptoms do start to appear, they can include:
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Persistent cough
- Coughing up blood
- Hoarseness or voice changes
- Trouble swallowing
- Swelling of neck and face
- Weakness and pain in the hand, arm, or shoulder
- Knee pain
- Chronic headaches
- Loss of appetite
- Bad breath
- Yellowing of fingernails or toenails
- Weight loss
- Unexplained back pain
- Elevated calcium levels
- Recurring respiratory infections
- Bone pain
Lung cancer is often misdiagnosed as another condition because its symptoms are present in other conditions. If you are coughing up blood, you might be misdiagnosed with tuberculosis. Shortness of breath may be misdiagnosed as COPD or asthma. A nagging cough is sometimes misdiagnosed as an infection, pneumonia, or bronchitis. Sadly, this was the case for one of our clients. Her advice was to always get a second opinion.
Other conditions, according to Diagnosis Delayed, that can cause misdiagnosis include:
- Acid reflux
- Encysted lung effusion
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Lung abscesses
- Lung nodules
- Pulmonary embolism
- Thoracic Hodgkin disease
Radon enters your home through pathways such as:
- Cracks in concrete floors
- Cold joints (floor-wall joints) where the concrete floor meets the foundation wall
- Plumbing pipe penetrations
- Exposed soil in crawl spaces, under bathtubs and showers, or unsealed sump baskets
- Open cores at the top of block walls
- Water control drainage systems
Low or negative air pressure in your home causes radon to be drawn in through the pathways mentioned above. The EPA has conducted studies concluding that sealing alone is not a very effective method for lowering radon levels. Radon easily penetrates many common building materials such as paper, paint, sheet rock, concrete, mortar, wood, and insulation.
The stack effect during winter months occurs when warm air rises and escapes through windows and openings in the top of your home. As that air escapes, more air is drawn in to replace it. This is where we run into a radon problem, as some of air drawn into your home contains radon. This is one factor that will typically cause increased radon levels during the winter months.
Have you ever noticed that if you open a basement window in the winter, outside air will flow in, and if you open a window on the upper floor, air will flow out? This will reverse during summer months and is one factor that usually means lower radon levels in the summer. You can try this in your own home by holding a piece of toilet paper next to an open window on the upper and lower floors of your home.
These other factors can also increase the radon levels in your home:
- Strong winds
- Heavy rain
- Frozen ground
- Combustion appliances such as furnaces, water heaters and fireplaces
- Dryers, exhaust fans and vents
- Whole house fans
- Open windows
- Improperly maintained air exchangers or heat recovery ventilators
- Plugged mechanical intake screens for make-up air, combustion air, and air exchangers
Testing is the only way to know for sure if you have radon in your home. The EPA recommends testing for radon every two years. It is best to test during the heating season.
Even if your neighbors’ homes have tested at acceptable levels, you should still test your home. Indoor radon levels vary from house to house. We’ve seen radon levels in one neighborhood range from 1.8 to 76.5 pCi/L.
Since radon is a radioactive gas, there is no safe level. However, the lower the level, the better. It’s impossible to eliminate your exposure to radon, as the average outdoor concentration in the Midwest ranges from 0.3 to 0.7 pCi/L.
Many years ago, the EPA set a radon action level of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). They chose this number not because it was safe, but because this level is what radon mitigation contractors could consistently achieve. At the time, radon mitigation technology could only achieve levels just shy of 4 pCi/L. This is why most radon companies today guarantee to get your radon levels below 4 pCi/L.
The EPA encourages anyone with radon readings between 2 and 3.9 pCi/L to consider mitigation. It strongly recommends mitigating anything above 4 pCi/L.
2 pCi/L is the equivalent of exposing your family to 4 cigarettes per day or 100 chest X-rays per year. 4 pCi/L is the equivalent of exposing your family to 8 cigarettes per day and 200 chest X-rays per year. As your radon level increases, so does your family’s risk.
With proper radon testing, you can determine what level of radon you are exposed to.
The radon removal method will vary depending on the needs of your home. Contact us at (612) 790-2928 now for a free estimate and for more information on the best way to reduce your family’s exposure to this deadly gas.
MN Department of Health – Breathe Easier: Test for Radon & Remove It
Learn more about radon, testing, and how to remove it in this video from the MNDH.