"Of all the home environmental issues—mold, carpet off-gassing—radon is completely resolvable. You can't say that for mold."
—Gordon Gammell, Ketchum radon tester
By BARBARA PERKINS
For the Express
Radon, an odorless, colorless, tasteless radioactive gas, is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, and your house may be full of it.
The naturally occurring gas produced during radioactive decay of uranium from soil, rock and groundwater nationwide is released into the air and inhaled in minute amounts with every breath. However, no place other than in a uranium mine is this carcinogen likely to be found in the higher, more lethal concentrations than in a tightly sealed, energy efficient home, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA, in a recent update of risks from indoor exposure, estimates 20,000 lung cancer deaths in the nation each year can be attributed to radon. That figure comes from a National Academy of Sciences' report, the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation VI Report of 1999, the most comprehensive review of scientific data gathered on radon, and includes an uncertainty range of 8,000 to 45,000.
"Of all the home environmental issues—mold, carpet off-gassing—radon is completely resolvable," says Gordon Gammell, a Ketchum geophysicist and National Environmental Health Association certified radon tester and mitigation expert. "You can't say that for mold."
Blaine County and most of southern Idaho are in the EPA's Red Zone of areas of concern.
That does not mean every house or every citizen is at risk for exposure. It varies dramatically from room to room, house to house and even lot to lot. The EPA map of the U.S. and another of Idaho show the potential for exposure is truly widespread because uranium is found nationwide in varying amounts.
Radon enters homes through cracks in floors, walls or foundations and collects inside. Radon gas may rise to significant levels in well insulated, tightly sealed homes. Basements and first floors typically test highest for radon levels because of the proximity to the earth that continually releases the gas. The gas becomes trapped indoors with no escape to the outside air, especially during the winter months when doors and windows are also kept shut.
Smokers may have even more to worry about. Although the association between radon exposure and smoking is not well understood, exposure to radon and cigarette smoke creates a greater risk for lung cancer than either factor alone, according to the National Cancer Institute. Lung cancer is the only cancer proven to be associated with inhaling radon.
The only way to know if radon is present in the home is to test. A neighbor's test results are no indication of what the house next door might hold.
Testing is simple and mitigation systems can be installed on older homes that may not have a system built in.
Two types of tests are available. Short-term detectors measure radon levels for two to 90 days, depending on the device. Long-term tests determine the average concentration for more than 90 days. Because radon levels vary from day to day and month to month, the longer-term test is often the best indicator.
Once the results are in, a state or local radon official can recommend appropriate measures to counter radon concentrations. Usually, some type of system is needed to draw the gas out from under the house and release it into the air, as nature would have done.
If you're planning to sell your home, be aware that the buyer's home inspector will test for radon and the results, if radon is present, could derail that top-price offer.
The county takes radon exposure seriously. A radon mitigation system is required by Blaine County building codes to be included on all new residential structures. Daycare centers are required to test for radon and to mitigate, if necessary, before children are allowed to attend.
Although systems are more efficient when incorporated into the design and construction of a new home, post-construction systems can be installed at any time of year, according to Gammell of Idaho Radon Testing and Mitigation.
"It's a dirty job," Gammell says of post-construction radon mitigation system installation. "But once it's done, it's done."
Minor system upkeep is all that's left to keep everyone breathing easier.