As residents seal their homes this winter to keep the warm air in and bitter cold out, they must also be aware that naturally occurring radon gas may be increasing to dangerous levels within.
Roughly 40 percent of homes in Garfield County have tested for radon at levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action limit” of 4 picocuries per liter of air. Long-term exposure to the odorless, colorless and tasteless radioactive gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer nationwide, next to smoking.
Radon gas is the result of decaying uranium in the soil, and is considered a high risk in every county in Colorado. While having obvious energy efficiency benefits, homes that are more tightly sealed may also have increased radon levels.
According to the EPA, radon levels in the home ranging from 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) or higher places occupants at risk. Radon is estimated to cause roughly 21,000 deaths nationwide annually, and the agency urges all people to have their homes tested.
“The average indoor radon level is estimated to be about 1.3 pCi/L, and about 0.4 pCi/L of radon is normally found in the outside air,” the EPA noted.
Morgan Hill, environmental health specialist for Garfield County, said testing for radon is the only way to know if your home is affected.
“People need to be concerned because radon causes lung cancer,” she said. “We want people to know that there’s a legitimate health risk with radon, and there is something you can do about it.”
Hill added that location and the geology under the structure determines if radon is present, and that results can vary from home to home.
“One neighbor may have radon in their home, while the other may not,” she said.
Carbondale resident Doug Stewart opted to mitigate radon in his home a little over a year ago, and was happy with the experience.
“It was very smooth. We got three bids, evaluated those, and the guy came in and did it very quickly,” he said. “It took around half a day. They were able to zip it right up. … We were surprised by how quick and easy it was.”
Stewart said he’d known he had radon in his home, and saw the levels increase with additional testing.
Tragically, a good friend of his — who was very health conscious and didn’t smoke — succumbed to lung cancer. This became the catalyst for Stewart mitigating for the gas in his home.
“We don’t know what caused it, and he didn’t have [high radon levels] in his home,” he said. “But this is something you can’t mess around with.”
Radon test kits can be picked up free of charge at Garfield County’s public health offices in Glenwood Springs and Rifle, as well as at the Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) office in Carbondale. Both homeowners and renters are urged to have their dwellings tested.
The colder months are an excellent time to gauge if a home has elevated levels of radon. When doors and windows are closed in the wintertime, pressure differences between internal and outdoor air can create a vacuum that pulls radon up from the ground and into a home.
Hill said that if the results indicate levels in the 4 to 8 pCi/L level for radon, the homeowner should conduct a long-term test over a nine-month period to assess fluctuations over the seasons. If the test result is greater than 8 pCi/L, a short-term test (three to seven days) is advised, followed by prompt mitigation efforts.
She added that the mitigation work can cost roughly between $1,500 and $2,500, depending on the job. Typically, the project includes the installation of piping and an electric fan to vent the radon out of the home.
From fall 2015 until Sept. 30 of this year, the county distributed 180 tests, of which 171 were sent in for analysis, Hill said. Some tests were conducted as a result of a collaborative effort through Pediatric Partners.
The radon tests come with a prepaid addressed envelope and are mailed to a lab in North Carolina for analysis. The correspondence should include the start and end date for the test, which should be mailed out immediately after completion to ensure accuracy.
“Some tests arrive, and they’ve already expired,” Hill explained.
The results are then emailed to both the homeowner and Garfield County, though the latter does not distribute the findings.