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Testing Your Home for Radon

One out of three homes in Utah contains dangerous levels of Radon.

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By Eleanor Divver

The human body is made up of roughly 37.2 trillion (37,200,000,000,000) cells. A lot, right?

When the body’s normal control mechanism stops working in as few as one of these cells, the cell stops dying, divides and grows out of control. This out of control growth forms new, abnormal cells commonly called cancer or a tumor. Untreated, cancerous cells can trigger all sorts of health issues and even death.

What causes a cell’s control mechanism to fail? Like so many things in biology, the equation is complicated. We do know, however, that exposure to environmental toxins plays an important role.

One of these environmental toxins is radon. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), breathing indoor radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. This translates to about 21,000 American deaths each year.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas caused by the decomposition of uranium-bearing granite in the soil. Under ideal circumstances, the radon gas moves up through the soil into the atmosphere and dilutes—presenting little human-health risk.

When a building is constructed on top of this decaying uranium, instead of dissipating in the atmosphere, the radon gas ends up trapped inside the building. When occupants, including pets, breathe the gas at unhealthy levels they can develop lung cancer. You can’t see, smell, or taste radon, and unlike carbon monoxide, it does not make you sick immediately.

The only way to know if your home is safe from radon is to test it. There is an easy short-term test that you can order from the Department of Environmental Quality. The kit costs about $9 and includes the processing fee. Just follow the directions on the package, leave it in your basement or lowest level of your home for two to four days, mail it in, and wait for the company to email you the results. If the level is higher than 4.0 pCi/L, you will want to contact a certified radon mitigation expert to do further testing or install a radon mitigation system.

The national 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 U.S. Congress has set a long-term goal that indoor radon levels be no more than outdoor levels. While this goal is not yet technologically achievable in all cases, most homes today can be reduced to 2 pCi/L or below.

Even if your test result is below 4 pCi/L, you may want to test again sometime in the future. If your living patterns change and you begin occupying a lower level of your home (such as a basement) you should retest your home on that level.

Mitigation isn’t as expensive as you may think. It can typically be done for $1,500 or less.

So here is the scary news, one in three homes in Utah test above the EPA action level of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/l) of air. On average, Utah homes test at about 5.3 pCi/l. Preventing lung cancer is so much easier and less costly than treating lung cancer. Please test your home for radon.

Utah’s radon program provides the following services:

  • Radon awareness through public outreach and education
  • Low-cost test kits to Utah residents
  • Indoor radon surveys in target areas
  • Individualized assistance to homeowners and public agencies
  • Public-school testing
  • Real-estate training on testing, disclosure, and mitigation

I started working in the radon world in 1993 when I was with the Salt Lake County Health Department. I then taught Public Health, Environmental Health and Healthy Lifestyles at the University of Utah for many years. Currently, I am working for the State Department of Environmental Quality as the Radon Project Coordinator. I have three daughters that keep me busy with countless great adventures!!