To Your Health

Is there a reliable and inexpensive way to test a home for radon?

Q. I'm concerned about my home having radon. Is there a reliable and inexpensive way to test for it?

A. Radon is a radioactive gas produced by uranium decay that can accumulate in tightly insulated houses. There are no immediate symptoms of radon poisoning, but an estimated 20,000 lung-cancer deaths a year are due to radon exposure, and the public often underestimates the potential risk of radon.

If you live in certain parts of the United States, you need to be aware of the threat posed by radon gas. However, radon levels cannot be predicted solely on the basis of location, and radon has been found in homes all over the country. Even homes located next to each other can have different radon levels. Other than the location, the building materials used in home construction, the geology of your home site, and the ventilation of any underground space can affect radon levels. Testing is the only way to find out what your home's radon level is.

Radon detection kits are available in most hardware stores and online. Take care to buy an unexpired kit since they are not trustworthy after a year on the shelf. Your first test should be done with an inexpensive kit that you expose for one week in the lowest part of your house that can be occupied by people, then send to a lab for reading. The kit, with detailed instructions, and the report by the lab should cost less than $15.

Results will likely be reported in picocuries of radon per liter of air. The goal of the Environmental Protection Agency is for the radon level of all indoor air to be as low as outdoor air, 0.4 pCi/L, but radon levels between 2 and 4 pCi/L are considered reasonably safe. If your initial test shows levels between 4 and 20 pCi/L the first thing you should do is retest, since radon levels can fluctuate. You may also want to consult a qualified radon tester who knows the proper conditions, test devices, and guidelines for obtaining a reliable radon test result. If the radon level in some part of your home is found to be between 4 and 20, limit the amount of time spent in the contaminated area and increase ventilation in that area. If two tests average 20 or higher pCi/L, you should consider taking steps to reduce the radon level. Although most states do not require a license to work on a radon problem, it is important to use an experienced and certified contractor.

If you use well water, that should also be tested. If high radon is found, the gas can be removed and ventilated into outdoor air, making the water safe to use.

Strange as it may seem, some people consider radon exposure beneficial, citing a concept known as "hormesis." Hormesis is the basis for homeopathy and comes from the observation that under some circumstances, harmful substances are beneficial when given in extremely low doses. Each summer, people from all over the United States and Canada journey to the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine located in the mountains of Montana. Here they spend about three hours per day for 10 days in a mine where the radon level is roughly 1,300 pCi/L, many of them emerging cured of such ailments as systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatism, multiple sclerosis, emphysema, ankylosing spondylitis, allergies, sinus problems, and psoriasis. Mine owners make no claims of benefit and only provide accommodations, though they don't allow pregnant women and children.

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