EPA estimates high radon levels in 7 of 10 Indiana homes
By Kristen Cervenak, Editor, [email protected]
January’s Radon Awareness Month is reaching an end, but long-term exposure to the radioactive gas remains a silent killer, causing lung cancer-related deaths in approximately 21,000 people a year.
Radon, a colorless and odorless gas, is caused by decaying uranium in soil, rock and water. Unable to be detected by any of the five senses, it can be found in any building, including homes, offices and schools.
“We have uranium in the soil and rocks. It breaks down and slowly dissipates out,” said Danny Schroeder, senior environmental health specialist for the Harrison County Health Dept. “I liken it to somebody smoking in a car. If your windows are down, (the smoke) will flow up and go out. If your windows are rolled up, it just builds. Radon slowly comes up through the ground and, if you have a house there catching it and the windows aren’t open, it’s just going to keep building up.”
Whether the home is a new build or historic, radon rises from cracks and other holes in the foundation, despite popular belief that a building without a basement is safe. However, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 7 out of 10 Indiana homes have radon levels above the recommended radon action level of 4 picoCuries — a unit of measurement for radioactive gas — per liter (pCi/L).
“Statewide, I think we’re about the highest grouping as far as how bad it can be anywhere,” Schroeder said. “The only way to know is to test your home. You can have a house next door that’s an older home on concrete block with cracks in it, and they won’t have a problem. You can have a brand new home, all poured concrete floor and walls, and you can have it bad. You just never know. It’s hit and miss.”
Generally, there are two main ways to test for radon: short-term and long-term testing.
Short-term testing consists of 48 hours to 90 days through devices such as charcoal canisters, alpha track, electret ion chamber, continuous monitors and charcoal liquid scintillation detectors, according to the EPA. Although it is recommended for fast results, with short-term testing, it is also encouraged to perform a second test if the radon levels come back over 4 pCi/L.
Long-term testing remains in the building for more than 90 days, typically using alpha track and electret detectors to perform the test. This indicates a reading closer to the year-round average of radon.
“Indiana is bad (for high radon levels). This area is bad,” Schroeder said. “We’re about as bad as you can find anywhere. The state building department doesn’t require you to put in radon vent pipes. Based on the knowledge of that around here, most of the builders around will go ahead and rough one in.”
He added that, in the last five years, many lending institutions are requiring radon tests before loaning money. If radon levels return high, a mitigation installation is recommended. These systems can run in the ballpark of $1,000 or even $2,500 to $5,000, depending on the complexity of the home. However, it is much cheaper to install during construction.
“Not all, but the vast majority of builders around here will rough in a pipe,” he said. “They will either stub it through the concrete and cap it, or they’ll go up into the attic and cap it. Then, they will test it so they can sell the house. If it is bad, they’ll go ahead and puncture through the roof. If it’s a straight pipe coming up, in a lot of cases, it’ll be enough to lower the radon level to a safer level. If there are a lot of bends, depending on how they want to conceal it through the roof, they generally have to have a fan on it.”
In addition to soil, radon can also be present in a home’s water supply, which poses a risk for both ingestion and inhalation. The EPA reports that radon is more likely a problem in water when the source comes from groundwater.
“I think they say it’s about seven people in a 1,000 that will get lung cancer,” Schroeder said. “If you smoke, that jumps up to 62 in 1,000. So if you take that, multiplied by the population of Harrison County, which is about 40,000, you get almost 2,500 people who could unnecessarily obtain lung cancer.”
The Harrison County Health Dept. offers free radon test kits. The test lasts anywhere from three to five days and has step-by-step directions to set it up. Once the test is completed, it can be sent off with an email address for quick contact about the results.
“These are things we don’t have to acquire,” he said. “We don’t have to get lung cancer. Take the test.”