Both personally and professionally, I have seen that there is always more to learn and do on the journey toward environmental health. In this Sustainability Is a Journey series, I’ll draw on my work as Highmark’s sustainability director, including my connections with environmentally focused community organizations and partners, to share tips, insights and inspiring stories on environmental issues in the workplace and in our individual lives.

BasementJanuary is National Radon Awareness month. Like many, I had heard of radon and had intended to do testing on my home, but never quite got around to it. So, last year, I made it one of my 2014 New Year’s resolutions; it was finally time to take action!

Uranium, which is a naturally-occurring element found in virtually all soil, rock, and water at low levels, releases radon gas when it decays. Radon gas, also naturally found outdoors, can be dangerous indoors where exposure is more concentrated. Because of the amount of time we spend indoors living and sleeping, we are most susceptible to radon-related health problems at home. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the U.S. has elevated radon levels. It’s not surprising, as radon can get into any building through various avenues (cracks in the foundation or walls, to name a few). This means new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or without a basement are all at risk. Radon gas is also odorless and invisible, making it impossible to detect without testing for it.

EPA Radon Citizens Guide

Radon gets in through: 1. Cracks in solid floors; 2. Construction joints; 3. Cracks in walls; 4. Gaps in suspended floors; 5. Gaps around service pipes; 6. Cavities inside walls; 7. The water supply (Source: EPA – A Citizen’s Guide to Radon)

Radon is a health risk due to its radioactive nature. Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. It is the second leading cause of lung cancers for people that smoke.

These figures may sound scary, but, fortunately, testing radon levels in your home is quick and easy. Testing is the best way to determine if you have radon and to take steps to eliminate it if you do. Test kits can be found at your local hardware store and generally range from $10 – $30 depending upon whether it is postage paid, short term or long term kit. Your region might even offer free radon testing services.

Testing Your Home’s Radon Levels

Exampls of radon test kits

Examples of Radon Test Kits

To obtain a radon test kit, visit the EPA’s website. The test will likely include instructions and recommendations based on the EPA’s guidelines, but for a refresher, see the sidebar to this article.

I used a short-term test purchased from a home improvement store. I followed the instructions exactly, placing the kit on my lowest living space (the first floor) for two days. Note: This may be different if you have a finished basement and spend a lot of time there. The first test came back at 9 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), more than double the recommended level of action. I was a little concerned and wished I had done this testing 10 years ago when I bought the house. I decided to act quickly to remediate the situation.

I found a highly rated radon remediation company on Angie’s List. Many of the reviewers listed the cost of and warranty information of their services. These reviews were very helpful and showed me what to expect from an installed radon reduction. Systems may vary based upon the construction of your home. Telling your contractor details about the construction of your home, like the type of foundation, could help your contractor choose the best system.

EPA illustration of subslab suction system

Subslab suction system.
Source: EPA

Because my foundation is a basement, the contractor chose an active subslab suction system. The system contains a pipe using a fan that vents the radon from the soil under my foundation through the outside wall above the roof where it quickly dissipates into the air.

In order to ensure that your home is safe, you should only use a contractor who is trained and certified in your state to fix radon problems. Check with your state radon office for names of qualified or state-certified radon contractors in your area.

Maintain Your Radon Reduction System and Future Testing

When your system is installed, review with your installer what you need to do to maintain your system. I have to visually check my system periodically to make sure the fan is running. It’s very easy to do and I haven’t had any issues since installation. In my case, as long as I perform an annual radon test with a specified kit, I maintain the contractor’s warranty. This warranty is transferable upon home sale. The system fans have a separate warranty, usually not longer than 5 years. Warranties may vary from system to system and it is important to maintain your warranty.

The EPA provides more information to help you understand radon reduction and selecting a contractor.

The EPA recommends you test your home every two years, even if you have a radon reduction system. However, you should verify the warranty on your radon reduction system. Some systems require annual testing in order to maintain the warranty.

Lastly, spread the word! Tell your family and friends about the health risks of radon. Encourage them to test their homes.

For more information about radon, and what the federal government is doing about the issue, visit the EPA’s resource library.