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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Recently, there has been interest in testing homes for radon. Let's do a quick review. Radon is a gas you can't see, taste, or smell. It is a gas that is found throughout the state of Iowa and in many homes. It comes from the natural (radioactive) breakdown of uranium in rocks, soil, and water and gets into the air you breathe. It is found in varying amounts in Iowa soils and is considered the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers in the U.S.

Radon doesn't cause headaches, nausea or other symptoms. However, prolonged exposure to high levels of radon can lead to lung cancer, which is the only known adverse effect. Not everyone exposed to high levels of radon will develop lung cancer, just like not everyone who smokes cigarettes develops lung cancer.

Radon moves into homes through openings such as cracks, loose-fitting pipes, sumps, exposed dirt floors, slab joints or porous block walls in the basement or lowest level of the house. The only way to know if you have radon in your home is to test for it. Just because your neighbor has a higher level of radon doesn't mean that your home would be at a high level and vice versa.

There are two types of test kits available; a short-term kit that is left in place for two to seven days and a long-term detector that is left in place for a period of more than 90 days. The short-term test is quick and accurate enough to determine whether some sort of remedial action should take place to correct the problem (unless the kit was used inappropriately). If the homeowner decides further testing is warranted, the long-term test is usually used and will give an average level of radon at different times of the year. Testing is easy and should only take a few minutes of your time. Kits can be purchased in many counties through public health, county sanitarians, and other public agencies.

The results will tell you how much radon was present at the time of the test. The level is dependent on where the detector was placed, the time of year, the operation of fans and the weather tightness of the home. Levels are usually highest during the winter when the home is closed up and the detector is placed in the basement or near possible radon entry points. Readings for an entire year are usually lower than those taken in a basement during the winter.

Radon gas is measured in "picocuries per liter" which is a scientific measure of radioactivity. The EPA has set 4 picocuries (pCi/L) as an action guideline. If the annual average radon level exceeds this number, the EPA suggests action be taken to reduce the number. Surveys conducted by ISU Extension and the EPA found that about 70% of Iowa homes have radon screenings above 4 pCi/L.

What are the risks? If 1,000 people who never smoked were exposed to a level of 4 pCi/L over a lifetime, about seven people could get lung cancer. If 1,000 people who smoked were exposed to this same level of 4 pCi/L over a lifetime, about 62 people could get lung cancer. Naturally, as the levels of radon increase or decrease, so do these risk numbers.

Reducing radon levels in the home may require the services of a trained professional in radon mitigation. The Department of Health maintains a listing of certified radon mitigation specialists at the website: http://www.idph.state.ia.us/eh/common/pd...

For more information on radon, start by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website at: http://www.epa.gov/radon/

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