Radon Gas. A Silent Killer.

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radon_gas_warningMontgomery County Council passes first mandated radon testing law in U.S.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) radon gas is responsible for the deaths of some 21,000 Americans a year.  The Cancer Institute states that the #1 cause of lung cancer outside of smoking is radon gas.  This past November the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a bill that will require most single-family homes be tested for radon prior to be being sold. Montgomery County is the first in the nation to mandate radon testing, ensuring that buyers and sellers and are informed of the possible existence of radon in their homes.  This new law will take effect in October 2016.
What is radon gas?
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from uranium deposits beneath the ground.  As the uranium breaks down, it gives off radon gas, an odorless, tasteless and colorless gas, which then rises and enters your home through cracks in floors, walls, construction joints, service pipes, and sump pump pits.  Radon can also be ingested through drinking water with elevated radon levels.
How does the gas hurt you?
If you breathe in radioactive particles over a long period of time the radiation from the gas breaks down the cells in your lungs and eventually causes lung cancer  This cancer can then spread to other parts of your body. Smokers are at the greatest risk of developing radon related lung cancer due to the stress already on their lung tissues from the smoking.
Who is at risk?
The EPA estimates that 1 out of every 15 homes in America may have elevated radon levels.  In our local area the geology suggests a high probability of elevated levels of radon gas.  Montgomery County is rated Zone 1 by the EPA (the highest level) with predicted average indoor radon screening levels greater than the EPA action level of 4 picocuries per litre or 4 pCi/L.
RadonEntryHow do you test for radon gas?
The EPA and the U.S. Surgeon General recommend that all homes be tested (and monitored) for the presence of radon gas.  Testing is relatively inexpensive with in-home test kits being offered for less than $20.  These test kits include a radon gas collector that hangs in the basement for 2-7 days and then are sent to a laboratory for analysis.  Long-term test kits are also available.  Radon levels fluctuate naturally and can be impacted by weather conditions.  There are often short contingency periods in real estate transactions to test for the presence of radon.  As a result, professional radon testing companies will provide sophisticated equipment to test for radon, resulting in test results in a matter of days at a cost of around $150.
What do the radon test results mean?
Radon is measured in picocuries per litre (pCi/L).  A curie, so named after the French scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and their ground breaking work on radioactivity, is the standard measure for the intensity of radiation in a given material.   The EPA recommends that mitigation steps be taken on a home if the long-term radon exposure will average 4 pCi/L or more. To give you some perspective that level is the equivalent of about 200 chest x-rays.  The issue in your home is that the house is often well insulated and the level of radon gas concentration can build, exposing you to higher levels of radioactivity and the potential health hazard.  Interestingly the EPA’s action level of exposure does not mean your home is safe at that level, or even corresponds to some known threshold with regard to a cancer effect.  It’s simply the result of the EPA’s cost-benefit calculation (economic cost to reduce risk vs. the economic cost of lost human life).  What?  Really.
How do you reduce radon gas levels in your home?
The typical solution for reducing indoor radon gas is the installation of a sub slab depressurization system.  This involves installing a PVC pipe in the basement floor which is connected to a fan.  When the fan is running a vacuum is created under the basement floor and the air from below the basement floor is drawn away and released above the roof.  There is literally no underground air entering the home when the fan is running.  We recommend you hire a qualified radon mitigation contractor if you want to reduce the level of radon gas in your home.  The contractor should have certification and training from either The National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) or The National Radon Safety Board (NRSB).  In Maryland the contractor also needs to hold a Maryland Home Improvement Contractors license (MHIC).  The cost for these sub slab ventilation systems is typically between $1,000 and $1,500 dollars depending upon the configuration and unique properties of your home.
Will radon gas impact my future home sale?
The Montgomery County Council unanimously passed Bill 31-15 that requires a seller of a single-family home to test for radon and give the buyer a copy of the radon test results.   The seller of the property must either perform the radon test or permit the buyer to do so.  If the seller performs the test the results must have been from a test performed within one year of the settlement date.  There are some exceptions to the new law such as the transfer of a home into a trust, transfers related to divorce, foreclosures, estate sales and homes that will be torn down by the buyer.  The new law will go into effect on October 1, 2016.
My final two cents on radon.
Radon gas is clearly a health danger.  The EPA action level of 4 pCi/L may likely be way above the level of exposure that most people would feel comfortable having over their lifetime (200 chest x-rays anyone?).  I would be more comfortable with an action level that was based on the real risk of getting cancer than some cost-benefit analysis made by the EPA.  If you walk outside you are likely exposed to a ½ picocurie of “background” radiation from radon.  Shouldn’t that type of exposure be the goal for indoor air quality?  That may not be practical or technologically feasible today but perhaps until it is ALL homes should be equipped with an active radon reduction system.  New homes in Montgomery County do require passive radon mitigation systems to be installed.  This essentially gives the new home the required PVC piping (without a fan) so the current retrofitting of piping that’s needed in older homes is not required.  As the public learns more about the health hazards of radon, mitigation systems will likely become a standard feature, just like fire sprinkler systems in new construction and smoke detectors in older homes.  – Brian