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Invisible Threat: Understanding and Protecting Your Family from Radon

By Becky Karush

  • Radon is known as a silent killer. You can't see or smell this dangerous gas. Fortunately, it's easy to test for radon — and take steps to protect your family from it.

    Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that can be found all over the U.S., and can seep into any type of building, including your home. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. But how do you know if you and your family are breathing it in? Here is information about dealing with radon, including why it's harmful, how to test for it and what to do if you find it.

    • Why is it harmful? Radioactive particles are released with the natural decay of uranium found in nearly all soil, as well as rock and water. When inhaled, these particles can cause lung cancer. "If the radon level is close to risk level in your home, you have a greater chance of dying than in a car crash," says James Roache, a Liberty Mutual home inspector who specializes in radon. A radon level above 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air is considered dangerous. About 0.4 pCi/L of radon is typically found outdoors.
    • How does it get inside buildings? Radon migrates through soil and enters buildings — and the air inside — typically through cracks in a building's foundation or basement floors and walls; openings around sump pumps, drains, pipes and wires; joints in construction materials; and crawl spaces. As radon seeps into your home, it can build up in the enclosed living space, increasing in concentration. Higher levels of radon can enter basements during periods when ground is waterlogged or frozen. It's also important to know that radon is considered a pollutant, so losses or damages due to radon may not be covered by your insurance policy.
    • Where can you find a radon test? Low-cost do-it-yourself test kits can be purchased at your local hardware store or online. If you prefer to use a qualified tester, your state radon office can provide you with a list.
      There are two methods of testing: short-term and long-term. Short-term test kits record the level of radon in your house for as few as two days, giving you a snapshot of your radon exposure. But because levels can fluctuate throughout the year, as well as when windows are open on the lower levels of your house, a long-term test can give you a more accurate reading. These tests take at least three months.
    • How do you fix the problem? If you test your home and discover a dangerously high radon level, a qualified contractor can help you find a solution. A mitigation system is usually very effective, Roache says. This method, which pulls the gas from the house and vents it outside, is a fairly common installation.
    Testing for radon in your home is simple, and preventing exposure is relatively straightforward, especially when you consider the importance of your family's health.