I got a high radon test result for my house this week. I’ve lived in the house nearly four years now and finally got it tested. Yay! The result is high. Boo! But what does it really mean? I haven’t written about radon here yet, so let’s have a look.
Radon is a noble gas on the far right side of the periodic table of the elements. I’m sure you know them by heart: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, radon, and now, apparently, a new one named oganesson. But it’s not radon’s association with the formerly-called inert elements that makes it of interest in the field of indoor air quality. It’s its ability to get into our lungs and cause lung cancer through radioactive decay.
Radon is a radioactive element in the decay chain of uranium-238, which is in granite and some other types of stone. We have a lot of granite here in the Atlanta area. You may have heard of Stone Monadnock? Most people call it Stone Mountain, and it’s solid granite.
The problem isn’t completely radon, though. The radon does bring the radioactivity into your house when it seeps in from the soil beneath. It floats around in your indoor air, decaying into other radioactive atoms fairly quickly. It’s half-life is 3.8 days.
Radon decays by emitting alpha particles, which are just helium atoms with no electrons. Alpha particles can cause a lot of damage to lung tissue. They cause even more when the radioactive atom emitting them is attached to the lung tissue.
That’s what the progeny (decay products) of radon do. They’re electrically charged, so they stick to the alveoli in the lungs. The decay products polonium-218 and polonium-214 are believed to cause most of the lung cancer from houses with high radon levels.
Why test for radon?
The US EPA has created a map of radon zones in the United States (image below). It shows you the areas where you’re more likely to have high radon levels. Every county and parish is labeled either zone 1, 2, or 3. Zone 1 means you have the highest chance of a high radon level in your home. Zone 3 is the lowest.
The thing is, that map doesn’t tell you what’s happening with radon in any particular building. You can live on a whole street full of homes with low radon levels, but yours still could be high.
Even in a Zone 3 location, you could have high radon levels. The state of Georgia keeps records on radon test results. Chatham County, Georgia, where Savannah is, shows up as Zone 3 on the EPA map. The highest level recorded in that county is 49.7 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L). That’s really high. (See the Georgia radon results map for more.)
You don’t know unless you test. And if you don’t test, you could become one of the 21,000 people who die of lung cancer each year from long-term exposure to high radon levels.
Understanding the result
Let’s discuss units first. I’ve mentioned picocuries per liter already, abbreviated pCi/L. A curie, named for Pierre and Marie Curie, represents 37 billion radioactive decays per second. If that sounds bad, it’s because it is.
And that’s why we’re talking picocuries. A picocurie is one trillionth (10^-12) of a curie, so that makes it 0.037 disintegrations per second. When you put the “per liter” on it, that makes this unit a concentration. It tells you how much radioactive radon fills the air in your home.
The outdoor concentration of radon, according to the US EPA, is about 0.4 picocuries per liter. And the EPA gives guidance on when you should do something about indoor radon levels. They say you should definitely work on the house to reduce the radon level if it’s above 4 pCi/L and probabably mitigate if it’s between 2 and 4 pCi/L.
Here’s a table from the EPA showing the risk to people who have never smoked.
As you might expect, smoking increases your risk significantly. For example, at 4 pCI/L, about 4 never-smokers might get lung cancer but the number rises to 62 for smokers.
In some places, radon levels are measured in bequerels per cubic meter (Bq/m^3) instead of pCi/L. The conversion factor is 1 pCi/L = 37 Bq/m^3. So 4 pCi/L would be 4 x 37 Bq/m^3 = 148 Bq/m^3.
What to do after a high radon test result
Now, in my case, our first test resulted in a radon level of 7.7 pCi/L. That’s definitely above the 4 pCi/L action level. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s high because we’re in radon zone 1. And my basement, which I’m slowly renovating, has plenty of ways for radon to get in. The photo below shows part of my basement slab, and those cracks aren’t isolated to this one spot.
The radon level in our home is far from the highest recorded in Dekalb County. According to that Georgia radon map, the highest they’ve recorded is 95.6 pCi/L, and about 18 percent of homes tested here have elevated levels.
The other important factor here is that I’ve done only one short-term test. Radon levels fluctuate with all kinds of factors, including the weather. We did have a day with 1.8 inches of rain, so that probably bumped it up some. When you do a single short-term test, the best thing to do is first, don’t freak out. As I understand it, lung cancer from radon takes exposure over many years. So, first, do a follow-up test.
The test kit I used is meant to be left open in the house for 3 to 7 days. There are also long-term tests that you leave for 3 to 12 months. The long-term number will give you a better idea of your true exposure. I’ve got a couple of those, too, and will be setting one out this week to get it started.
My next steps are to continue working on my basement and getting it sealed up. Those cracks in the slab and other places that allow soil gases into the house are a radon liability.
The first place to go is the US EPA radon page. There’s a ton of information there, including where to get radon test kits, a downloadable copy of the US radon zone map, and a lot more. They also have a page with links to radon hotlines, programs, and training. Your state may have good resources, including free or subsidized test kits. Here’s the radon page for Georgia. For basic information as well as detailed science, the radon page on Wikipedia is great.
Now, get your house tested. If the radon level is high, test again and start the process of getting it fixed. I’ll come back and write about the important step of radon mitigation later. For now, see the EPA resources above.
Followup article: Does Radon Really Cause Lung Cancer?
Allison A. Bailes III, PhD is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the founder of Energy Vanguard in Decatur, Georgia. He has a doctorate in physics and is the author of a popular book on building science. He also writes the Energy Vanguard Blog. For more updates, you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow him on LinkedIn.
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