Radon putting Ohioans at risk

January 23, 2009

 

Radon demonstrates that what you don’t see can hurt you.

 

Radon is a radioactive gas that can seep undetected into our homes, mixing into the air we breathe and boosting our risk of lung cancer. Nearly one in 15 U.S. homes is believed to have an elevated radon level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, and the risk is especially high in most of Ohio.

 

It’s a serious problem, experts say. Radon kills an estimated 21,000 people each year, according to the EPA. That’s more than die because of drunk driving.

 

But there’s good news: Testing for radon with a do-it-yourself kit is simple and cheap, and the problem can be fixed at a cost that’s not exorbitant.

 

The EPA, the Ohio Department of Health and other radon activists are trying to get the word out during January, which has been designated National Radon Action Month.

The hope is that every home will be tested, said Marybeth Rich, sanitarian program specialist with the Ohio Department of Health. ”You can’t know you have the problem till you test,” she said.

 

What is radon?

Radon comes from the decay of uranium, which is deposited irregularly in the Earth’s crust and is found in soil, rock and water. The gas can enter your home through cracks, joints and other openings in the foundation.

 

Radon can also come from water, particularly well water, and can be released into the air when you take a shower, turn on a faucet, wash clothes or use water in other ways. However, that risk is relatively small, the EPA says.

 

Radon can also be produced by building materials such as stone, but the EPA says they rarely cause problems on their own.

 

A house that’s especially airtight or one that’s closed up in winter can have higher readings because the radon builds up inside, said Robert Lann, an Akron home inspector who is also licensed to test for radon. But there’s no way to tell whether your house has a radon problem by the way it’s built or where it’s located.

 

Even next-door neighbors can vary greatly in their homes’ radon levels. ”It’s really just spread out,” Lann said. ” It’s house to house sometimes.”

 

Why is Ohio at risk?

Underlying Ohio are two geological phenomena that put most of the state in the highest risk category for radon. One is a shale outcropping; the other is sediment that was deposited by glaciers. Both are associated with high amounts of radon.

 

A broad swath across the middle of Ohio is considered by the EPA to have the highest potential for elevated radon levels. Summit, Wayne and Stark counties are among those 53 counties.

 

Dangerously high radon levels have been found in nearly 31.6 percent of buildings in Summit County, 48 percent in Stark County and 49.3 percent in Wayne County, according to data on the University of Toledo’s Ohio Radon Information System Web site. In those buildings, tests found radon levels of 4.0 picocuries per liter of air or higher, the level at which the EPA recommends action.

 

Ohio’s other 35 counties, in the northern and southern parts of the state, are at moderate risk. Those include Portage County, where elevated radon levels were found in 22.1 percent of buildings, and Medina County, where the percentage was 28.3.

However, Rich stressed that elevated levels of radon have been found in every Ohio county. Any home in the state could have a radon problem, she said, and every home should be tested.

 

What’s the harm?

When we inhale radon, we take in radioactive particles that can get trapped in our lungs. Those particles continue to break down, releasing small bursts of energy that can damage lung tissue and eventually cause lung cancer, the EPA explains.

 

The agency identifies radon as the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers and the No. 2 cause of the disease overall. The combination of smoking and exposure to high radon levels is especially deadly.

 

Although radiation tends to put children at higher risk than adults of certain cancers, there’s no conclusive evidence of that in the case of radon, the EPA says.

How can I test my home?

 

Used properly, most do-it-yourself kits are an easy, inexpensive and reliable way to test your home, the EPA and Ohio Health Department say. You leave the device out for anywhere from a couple of days to three months, depending on the kit, and then send it to a laboratory for analysis.

 

Hardware stores, mass merchandisers and online retailers sell test kits for around $20 or less, but Rich noted improper handling or storage could skew the results. What’s more, some tests don’t make it clear upfront whether the consumer has to pay again to have the kit analyzed, she said.

 

She recommended ordering a kit from AirChek Inc., which has an agreement with the health department to sell to Ohioans at a discounted price of $6.95. The price includes return shipping and laboratory analysis.

 

Kits can be ordered at http://www.ohio.radon.com or 800-247-2435.

Home kits take time, however, and sometimes you need results faster. In that case, you can hire a professional to test your home using electronic equipment, at a cost of around $200 to $250. The testing takes a couple of days, but once it’s complete the results can be obtained quickly, often within minutes, radon tester Lann said. Those results are more thorough than what you get from a home kit.

Make sure the tester has an Ohio radon testing license, Rich said. The license indicates the tester has undergone training and an exam.

 

What if I have radon?

High radon levels can be fixed, and without a great deal of difficulty or expense, Rich said.

 

The typical mitigation system is called sub-slab depressurization and involves installing a vent system to capture radon, carry it up through the roof and expel it. The system may make use of the home’s existing perimeter drains and suck air through the sump pump.

 

Sometimes a fan is added to boost air flow.

 

A mitigation system can reduce radon 96 to 98 percent, Rich said. She said the cost is usually around $500 to $1,500; the EPA puts the average cost at $1,200 and the range at $800 to $2,500.

 

Some building codes require a passive system — one without a fan — to be installed when a house is built. The house should still be tested after construction is complete, the EPA says. If necessary, a fan can then be added.

 

Radon mitigation contractors, like radon testers, are required to be licensed in Ohio. Both the contracting company and the person doing the installation must have a license, Rich said.

 

What about water?

Radon is sometimes found in water, usually groundwater. Drinking water containing radon may increase your risk of stomach cancer, but the bigger risk comes when the water is disturbed and the gas is released into the air.

 

That’s why the EPA says testing the air is still the best course to determine if you have a problem. It takes a fairly high concentration of radon in water to release a problematic amount into the air.

 

Nevertheless, it’s possible to test your well for radon and treat it, if necessary. For information, call the EPA’s Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791, or visit http://www.epa.gov/safewater/radon.html.

 

While it’s possible for a public water supply to contain radon, that’s rare, Rich said. Public water systems use methods to reduce radon, and many draw their water from reservoirs where the gas has a chance to escape into the air.

 

How can I learn more?

More information on radon is available on the Ohio Radon Information System Web page, http://radon.utoledo.edu, or the Ohio Department of Health’s radon information line, 800-523-4439. You can even see radon statistics by ZIP code on the Web site.

In addition to general radon information, both sources can provide names of contractors licensed to do radon testing and mitigation.

 

Another good resource is the EPA publication A Citizen’s Guide to Radon, found at http://epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html. The agency and the National Safety Council also have several radon-related hot lines: 800-557-2366 for live help with radon questions, 800-644-6999 for information on radon mitigation and 800-767-7236 for ordering test kits.

 

To check radon risk in other areas, go to http://www.epa.gov/radon/zonemap.html#about.

 

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com.

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