Radon is invisible to the eye and has no odor. And even though it began worrying Americans starting in the 1980s, its mysterious ways seem misunderstood to this day.
Yet according to UR Medicine’s Environmental Health Sciences Center, radon gas is second only to cigarette smoke as the leading cause of lung cancer. In the United States, radon is responsible for about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year.
Two years ago, in a remote Kazakhstan village, residents began falling asleep for days at a time. Tests showed that villagers had an excessive accumulation of fluid in their brains, causing dizziness, inability to stand, fatigue and memory problems.
Scientists first thought a virus or bacteria was to blame. Eventually, they concluded that radon from a nearby Soviet-era uranium mine had seeped up to the surface and was poisoning the villagers.
In the United States, initial reports of radon-related deaths caused anxiety. Fairly quickly, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered 1986 estimates of radon-related deaths and the number of contaminated homes. With that, many Americans forgot about radon contamination except as a footnote when buying a home.
According to the New York Department of Health, radon can enter buildings through cracks or openings in floors or walls or gaps in the foundation. Radon levels are usually highest in the basement or crawl space. It’s usually found in igneous rock and soil, and in some cases, well water. The gas produces radioactive decay particles that can damage the cells that line the lungs and lead to lung cancer over time.
Smokers have an even higher risk if their homes have high levels of radon. The risk increases with each year lived in a radon-contaminated house.
The EPA, Surgeon General, American Lung Association, American Medical Association and National Safety Council all recommend homes be tested for radon.
Elevated radon levels have been discovered in every state of the union. The EPA estimates that as many as 8 million homes across the country have elevated levels of radon.
Dr. James Murray, a pulmonologist at Unity Pulmonology Medicine, said because radon is one of the contributors to lung cancer, testing a home for radon makes good sense.
“While the evidence is still a little unclear, there’s a continuous overall risk of lung cancer from radon,” said Murray. “There’s older data from underground miners, but meta-analyses confirmed there was a connection.”
Both his work and personal experience have convinced Murray of the importance of home testing.
“A friend in Pittsford recently had to get radon mitigated from his home. One of the problems is how well-sealed houses are now,” because the gas can stay trapped inside. “My parents lived in a similar house, and it was a big concern to them. I’ve had three homes, in New York state and New Hampshire, and I’ve been eager to have them tested,” Murray said.
Realtors can help get a house tested, and many are seeing more homebuyers who insist their house be tested before they move in.
“Along with lead testing, people are becoming more sensitive to environmental issues when buying their home,” said Sib Petix, of The Petix Group on East Avenue in Rochester. “They have to pay more to have their house tested for radon during inspection, but they’re willing to do it.”
Petix himself, after many years selling houses in the Rochester area, hasn’t had his own house in the Park Avenue area tested, although that’s based on experience with testing. He said many homes he has sold in the neighborhood were tested and found to have no radon, so he doesn’t think the gas is present where he lives.
So what’s a new homebuyer or a longtime resident to do?
A Citizen’s Guide to Radon, produced by the EPA, explains low-cost ways to test your home for radon and what to do if levels are too high.
Tests can be done by a professional tester; there are several in the Rochester area. Or DIY kits for $11 are available online through the New York State Department of Health. It’s also suggested that homes be tested in winter when homes are more sealed. January is the EPA’s designated radon action month.
According to the EPA, “the average indoor radon level is about 1.3 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). Homeowners should make every effort to lower the levels if the level is 4.0 pCi/L or higher.” Even new homes built with radon-resistant construction should be tested.
If a house has high radon levels, it’s important to get the radon mitigated from a qualified or state-certified company. A common method of mitigation involves installing a vent pipe system and fan (aka “a soil suction radon reduction system”) that pulls radon from beneath the house and vents it outside. The process doesn’t require any major changes to the home. Foundation cracks and other openings should be sealed. The actual cost of mitigation varies depending on the style of home.
In other words, a simple and inexpensive test can ease the fear of an invisible, odorless cancer-causing gas invading a home. It’s a matter of breathing easy.