Green Renovation: Dealing with Toxic Radon Gas, Part 1

Jim Mallery

A few decades ago, radon became a buzzword. Scientists and government officials warned of the killer radioactive gas that could invade your home. Homeowners were startled that their basements and crawl spaces could be lung-cancer factories.

Radon, a naturally occurring product found in many soils and groundwater, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. The EPA estimates it causes 21,000 deaths a year.

In the decades following the first warnings, Americans have become a little blasé about the problem. It's out of sight, and out of mind. It's not like your house becomes contaminated, you get sick and you die. The effects of radon are long-term--the air you inhaled in the 1990s might be your lung cancer in 2010.

Is Radon an Old House Problem?

Does the age of your house matter? Is an old house more likely to have radon problems?

Yes and no. Any house should have a radon test. A new house in an area with radon can have problems. New houses generally are sealed tighter, so if there are radon emissions from your soil, they may build up to higher concentrations in your house. But there are situations common with old houses that make them susceptible to radon infiltration, mainly cracked foundations, cinder-block foundations, sump pumps and drain holes in the basement and poor ground-water drainage.

If your old house is countrified and you are on a well, the well water also could be contaminated. (Public water systems seldom have radon problems.)

How Do You Know If You've Got Radon?

There are simple radon tests that can be purchased at some big-box stores and hardware stores--they cost $10 to $15. They require that a canister sit in the basement for a couple of days and then be mailed to a lab for testing. Usually, the cost includes mailing and testing the sample.

These short-term tests are a little spotty, and it is recommended you test a couple of times, whether or not the first test determined a problem.

Long-Term Radon Test

A long-term radon test--where the canister sits for ninety days--is more accurate, though obviously you have to wait considerably longer for results. These long-term tests cost two to three times more than a short-term radon test.

If a first test determines a problem, you should have another follow-up test to make certain you are above the 0.4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

If you have questions about testing, your local health district should be able to guide you.

In Part 2, find out what to do if the radon test determines your household air is above acceptable radon limits.

About the Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing, and rebuilding homes.

Search Improvement Project