What the heck is radon and what do I do about it?
Unbeknownst to most of us over the years, a silent killer has been at work. Who? No, what. Radon, an invisible, odorless radioactive gas created from the natural decay of plutonium in the soil. It’s been around forever. It’s in the air outside but so diluted as to not be considered a risk. But in the last 10 years, radon has become a big deal, especially in home sales.
Controversy swirls around radon testing and risks. Some experts claim that all of the hype surrounding radon is nothing more than junk science. Other experts – including the EPA and medical associations – believe it is a health risk to be mitigated if found to exceed dangerous levels.
Put me firmly on the fence. Logic would tell us that a radioactive gas is not a healthy phenomenon. Yet, I wonder if more people are hurting their health by not eating enough fruits and vegetables than by breathing minute amounts of radon. One study I read showed that 90,000 deaths each year have radon to blame. Each year? That number seems awfully high. My guess is that they took all the lung cancer deaths of non-smokers. I can’t imagine that they cross-referenced everyone’s death with the radon level in their homes. Another report I read said that even with a radon level in your home that was twice the EPA’s action level, you were still more likely to die in an airplane crash than from radon. I suppose that’s comforting to everyone but those with lung cancer who have high radon levels in their homes.
I do question the testing techniques. Although a 90 day test is considered the most accurate, most tests given are 72 hours in which the air – typically in a basement – will be measured for radon. The area tested will be made airtight – windows shut and locked, no fans may operate, and doors looced and not used – during the testing period. A reading 4 ppl or greater is considered the action level at which the EPA recommends mediation to lower the radon levels.
My first beef with testing is that they do it in unnatural conditions designed to get the highest ratings. Outside doors – those not even in basements – are recommended to be used a minimal amount of time. Weather can affect the ratings – wind, rain, temperature. Houses that never tested high before will suddenly test high. While authorities on the subject say on one hand that better insulated and sealed homes have brought the problem more to light, they’ll say on the other that drafty homes can also have radon problems. Perhaps it’s a matter of degrees, but one seems to dispute the other. Maybe I’m not so much on the fence after all.
Radon problems typically come to light when a house is being sold. In addition to other home inspections, radon is now frequently tested. It is commonplace in some regions of the country – even though radon occurs throughout the United States. Certainly, I can attest that it has become a big business in the suburbs of Chicago. Whether it’s junk science or a biohazard, once your home has tested higher than 4 ppl, your buyers will almost always ask that you mediate it – or provide a credit for the cost of mediation. This exact situation happened to me in a house sale where the radon level tested at 4.3 ppl level. They didn’t accept rounding down as an answer, and money was deducted at the closing. Even if you lose your buyer, you will need to disclose the high radon level to prospective future buyers. The seller is stuck.
So how do you fix it?
Passive mediation is the term used for sealing around basement windows, filling all cracks in the basement floor and walls, and sealing the joint between the concrete floor and foundation wall. This is usually only valid if the levels are low or just exceeding the action level of 4 ppl. I suppose it’s worth a try in any case. Some experts claim that it really is never a good solution that will work.
A Google search did reveal a company with a radon and waterproofing compound that you would use to seal the walls and floor. Frankly, I have my doubts this would prevent water much less a gas, but you decide at https://www.radonseal.com.
What do you do if you have a finished basement, a home on a slab, or an unfinished crawl space? Or if your level is too high for passive mediation. You hire a professional that installs a pressure and ventilation system to essentially blow the radon out from under your home and to the outside environment. I’m sure prices range across the country, but the typical cost in Chicago is $1000 - $1200 for an unfinished basement. I don’t know if or how the price may vary for finished spaces, slabs, or crawl spaces.
I found this report online that claims easy, inexpensive, do-it-yourself fixes for radon. I have no idea if this report is true or B.S., but if you want to check it out, go here: https://www.radonsecrets.com.
The best site I found for radon information was actually from the EPA. See it here at: https://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/hmbyguid.html.
What you decide to do about radon will obviously depend on your circumstances. If you test it for your home, then you can weight the level versus the risk you are willing to take. If, however, you are selling your home, your options are more limited, and frankly, you’ll probably be stuck fixing it professionally or providing a credit.
If you have found an easy and inexpensive way to fix a high radon level in your home, let me know in the comments below or send me an email.