Radon Awareness Week: Protecting Your Home From A Silent Killer

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In case you didn’t know, it’s Radon Awareness Week — which is no World Environment Day, true, but it’s gaining ground.

In honor of this momentous quasi-occasion, here’s a primer on the dangers of exposure to radon and how to protect yourself and your family.

Radon is a radioactive gas, a byproduct of uranium decay, that becomes dangerous when it builds up in your home. Despite scary headlines about granite countertops giving off radon — The New York Times once asked, “What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?” — the greatest risk by far is emissions from the soil underneath your house coming up into the house itself. There is a high likelihood of radon in Iowa and in the Appalachian Mountains, due to the geology of those areas, but it can occur in any of the 50 states. (Click here for the EPA’s map of radon zones).

How dangerous is radon? The EPA estimates that radon build-up causes 21,000 deaths a year from lung cancer, making it the second leading cause of that type of cancer after smoking. Your risk is far higher if you smoke, have once smoked, or — sorry kids — are a passive smoker due to living with someone who actively smokes.

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So how do you protect yourself? The easiest way to get radon out of bedrooms and living areas is to open a window every day to circulate the air (turns out that grandma was right about some things). But if you spend substantial time in your basement, which is more enclosed and harder to air out, you should do radon testing.

The protocol is to start with a “short-term” test. To start, take air samples for three days or so and then send them off to a lab to be analyzed. If the lab reports problematic radon levels, then you should do a “long-term” test, where you check the air for at least three months. Test kits, available from Kansas State University, are pretty reasonable: Short-term test kits cost $15, including lab analysis, while long-term ones cost $25.

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If your kit reads no problem, great! (In fact, as a real estate agent, I would suggest that you use the testing results as a marketing point when you decide to sell your home.)

If you do come up with a problematic level of the gas, however, contact your state radon office — they’ll probably advise a pipe-and-fan system to vent the radon out from beneath your house before it enters the basement in the first place. According to the EPA, the cost of radon mitigation runs about $1,200–a small price to pay for peace of mind.