January was Radon Action Awareness Month: seems kind of a bummer to ring in the new year talking about radon; but I guess the EPA got last pick of when to have an “awareness month”.
If you’ve bought or sold a home in the past 10 years and hopefully longer ago than that, you should have been made aware of having your home tested for radon. Whether or not you did or have, hopefully this article will shed some light on the issue and eliminate some old wives’ tales that have been circulating since the ‘70s.
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that comes up from the soil. It is a decay product of uranium, which is what makes it radioactive. It is naturally occurring; and therefore everywhere.
What we’re concerned about is when radon builds up to unacceptable levels in our homes. It can sneak into the house through cracks in the basement floor slab, from around the underground pipes in the basement, and other such penetrations. Many older homes were built without plastic under the concrete floor, and radon can make its way straight up through the floor itself. Contrary to popular belief, concrete is neither moisture nor air tight; it just slows them down a whole lot. Newer homes are now built with radon resistant materials and methods, but testing is still necessary to determine if those measures worked.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that 4.0 Picocuries (a measure of radiation) of radon per liter of air poses a health risk. They also state that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Second only to cigarette smoking. So, it’s the #1 cause among non-smokers.
You can learn more about the EPA’s position and rules regarding radon by getting a “citizens guide to radon”, available at: http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html
Or if you’ll be buying or selling a home soon, the “home buyers and sellers guide to radon”: http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/hmbyguid.html
Pennsylvania as it turns out is a “high pressure” area for radon; it is not uncommon to find elevated levels in Pennsylvania homes. The PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a pretty slick website where you can enter a zip code, and find out how many radon tests have been conducted in that area, the highest and lowest test levels, and the average.* http://www.depreportingservices.state.pa.us/ReportServer/Pages/ReportViewer.aspx?%2fRadon%2fRadonZip
Regardless as to the age of your home, if the earth around or under it have settled, etc. the radon levels in your home can change. This is why EPA recommends testing your home every three years, and every other year if you have a mitigation system installed.
If your home is newer, it may have been constructed with radon resistant measures, however that does not mean impervious; you still need to test periodically.
Some old baloney I’ve encountered since becoming a radon tester in 1996:
- “Radon is just a government conspiracy to make money.” No, radon is not a governmental conspiracy to put money in my (the tester’s) pocket. (Don’t you just hate it when the government conspires to make you money? Has that EVER happened?!)
- “Canada’s action level is higher than in the U.S.” I’ve never bothered to find out if this is true; I don’t live in Canada, and I’m pretty sure my house has never been there.
- “It’s impossible to get radon fixed.” Actually in most cases it’s easy to get radon mitigated; it’s usually a less than 1-day job, and typically costs less than 1% of the home’s value. (Most systems are less than $1,000)
- “Ya gotta die of something.” Seriously? Isn’t that an equally compelling argument for not looking before you cross the street?
Putting a new deck on the house is fun, and we can see and appreciate where our money has been spent. Testing and fixing radon is kind of like replacing the water heater; it’s necessary, but no fun, and most folks don’t take their friends in the basement to show it off. (“That’s a beautiful water heater Bob, how many people will it shower?”)
Getting your home tested is relatively painless, for a professional short term (2 – 89 day) test, the cost is usually between $150 – $200, and isn’t much more for a long term (90 days – 1 year) test. You can also purchase a do-it yourself test kit; and if you choose to go that route, you must follow the instructions on package to the letter. I cannot count the number of calls I have gotten from folks who got an alarmingly high test result only to find out they had placed the test kit incorrectly. On the flip side, one can only wonder who received false lows due to improper testing procedures.
A short term test is conducted under “closed house conditions” wherein the doors and windows must remain closed except for normal momentary entry and exit, fireplaces cannot be used, and a few other restrictions for 12 hours prior to and for the duration of the test. While the EPA defines a short term test as anything less than 90 days, this is commonly a 2-5 day test. This is the most commonly used testing protocol for real estate transactions.
A long term test is EPA-defined as anything over 90 days, and is conducted in “lived in” conditions. The occupants can come and go, open windows, and use the house as they normally would. This is the protocol/testing I recommend for folks who are not planning to move anytime soon.
The PA DEP has a list of testers and radon mitigation companies that are currently licensed. Licensee must obtain continuing education and renew their licenses every two years. Before you have your home tested or mitigated, make sure the person doing the work is licensed. You can check at the D.E.P.’s radon service provider website: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/radon_certification/21935/radon_services_directory/1924689
If there is any good news about this topic, the level of radon in your home is relative; if it’s 4 or above, no matter how high, it needs fixed, and the fix is typically the same regardless of the number. If it’s 3.9 or less, no matter how low, no repair is necessary. However if you’re right on that cusp, (3-5) I recommend additional (usually long term) testing just to be sure.
So take advantage of the long winter months to get your home tested for radon. If nothing else, it will give you the peace of mind in knowing that you and your kids are safe from this nasty gas.
Brian Mishler is the owner of HomeStudy Inc., and a 20-year veteran home inspector. He began performing home inspection after 15 years in the construction industry convinced him that his
body wasn’t made for hard labor. Brian is the former president of the Pittsburgh Regional Organization of the American Society of Home Inspectors (PRO-ASHI), and currently sits on the
board of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that rehabilitates homes for disadvantaged seniors and veterans, assisting them with prerenovation inspection and selection. Brian also
teaches a variety of real estate-related classes, and has mentored others seeking to become home inspectors.
He currently resides in Latrobe, with his better half, Carol, their Boston terrier Gizmo, three cats, and three transient college students. When spare time is to be had, Brian can be found on a motorcycle, in a kayak, or hiking in the area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.