RADON: certain death or a lot of hot air?

We recently tested our home for radon... (We're turning our basement from a ****-hole to a children's play room). The test came back at 6.8 (You're supposed to 'fix' the house at 4.0. I THINK the scale tops out at 20).

A friend, who is a toxicologist said...."it's an arbitary number...yours is low enough...you have leaky, old house...don't worry about it."


Any advice?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

Well, Radon has been found to be carcinogenic and studies as recent as 2005 show it to be the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoke. To be certain and to get an official and scientific opinion on the subject I would get in contact with our regional EPA office to answer some of your questions.

Warning Chemistry Ahead

Just for some background, Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive element and one of the noble gasses. Radon can break down from its natural state Radon-222 and create Polonium-218 and Polonium-214 which both give off alpha particles that can damage tissues in your lungs and possibly leading to cancer.

I am not sure what test you used and the scale you are going by, but the US Government guidelines suggest taking action when Radon levels are higher than 148 Bq/m3. The Bq in that number stands for becquerels which is a special unit for radioactive materials that describes how much a given material decays over time. 1 in 15 houses in the United States are estimated to have this elevated level of Radon.

So what should you do? We aren't in any way qualified to answer that question and your toxicologist friend might not be either. Radiation and its negative effects are a fact of life that we must all face. How you face them is up to you. But, I would stick with what you local EPA expert tells you. Get in touch with them.

Have other Science Buzz visitors had any experience with Radon in their homes?

posted on Wed, 02/08/2006 - 1:36pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

My copy of "Bad Medicine", by Christopher Wanjek, has this to say on the topic:

"Many folks seem to equate all types of radiation with the dangerous kind, called ionizing radiation. This type of radiation is energetic enough to knock an electron loose from an atom. Many types of radiation pass through our bodies all the time. Although you cannot shine a flashlight (visible light) through your chest, radio waves and microwaves will pass through easily enough. Ionizing radiation also passes through you, but it can damage the atoms in your cells as it travels, knocking loose an electron from a DNA molecule. Ultraviolet light is ionizing radiation; too much of it causes skin cancer. X rays and gamma rays are also ionizing. Too many X ray exams can lead to organ cancers. Fortunately, the nastiest forms of ionizing radiation are produced in deep space, and the earth's atmosphere blocks most of this from reaching the earth's surface (although that hole in the ozone layer is letting in more UV)....

...Over 80 percent of the ionizing radiation we encounter day to day comes from natural sources: cosmic rays, which are atomic particles from space; and alpha and beta particles from radioactive gas, namely radon. Ionizing radiation is actually hard to avoid. Radon gas, for example, accounts for nearly 70 percent of natural ionizing radiation. This stuff comes from the decay of uranium in soil and percolates up into the open air or into basements through cracks in the floor. Radon becomes a health hazard when it gets trapped in a building and accumulates. We also get a small dose of radiation from cosmic rays on international flights, when the jet plane reaches altitudes of around twenty-five thousand feet and higher....

...Radon gas causes thousands of lung cancers per year in America,a low but not insignificant number."

Why do people worry about radon now, when they didn't a few decades ago? Well, there are two big reasons: 1) people didn't realize that radon was a carcinogen, and when patients developed lung cancer, the cause was a mystery; and 2) houses were so drafty that radon gas never had a chance to accumulate in people's homes.

The EPA's Citizen's Guide to Radon says that you're exposed to about 0.4 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L) of radon in outside air, and that the average indoor radon level is estimated at 1.3 pCi/L. The guide also suggests that if you test your home's radon level and the result is 4 pCi/L or higher, you should have a follow-up test done, preferably a "long-term" test. If the results are still higher than 4 pCi/L, you should "fix" your home.

In your case, since you're planning on using your basement as living space, the EPA suggests you should have a retest done, and think about doing remediation no matter what the level is. As EPA says, "Even radon levels below 4 pCi/L pose some risk, and you can reduce your risk of lung cancer by lowering your radon level."

There are a variety of methods to "fix" your house. You can use vents and fans to pull the radon from under your house and vent it to the outside. Sealing up foundation cracks and other openings helps the vent system work even better. And if you're doing a major remodeling anyway, you might be able to incorporate some of this work. For other fixes, refer to EPA's "Consumers' Guide to Radon Reduction".

My personal opinion? Yes, 4 pCi/L is probably an arbitrary number, but if I were going to spend a lot of time in the basement, and have my kids spend a lot of time down there, I'd want that level to be as low as I could get it. If I didn't know that I had a radon problem, I'm not sure that I'd ever think about it. But with those test results in my hand, I don't know if I could ever get it totally out of my mind.

It's kind of like lead paint, you know? Once you know it's there, you feel compelled to vaccuum up all the dust and cover up or remove as much of the paint as you can...

posted on Wed, 02/08/2006 - 3:48pm
kg's picture
kg says:

Here's the deal.....

A 6.whatever radon level presents a certain HYPOTHETICAL "excess cancer risk". So....you have to keep in mind that there is nothing at all precise in this science. In fact, those of us that are honest about science's shortcomings would probably call that facet of environmental health risk assessment "voodoo science" or "pseudoscience". If 4.0 pCi/liter is the lower end of a "range of concern" and 20 pCi makes our eyes wide, I'd just relax and say to myself: "OK, this pseudoscience says that my kids risk of getting lung cancer at age 60 will decrease from a hypothetical 3 in 1,000,000 to 1.643545 in 1,000,000 if I reduce it from 6.2 to 4.0.....so....how much money is this worth to me?" Impossible to answer accurately, true?

I know that radon causes lung cancer among a few unlucky people of the millions that are exposed to it. I also know that in the grand scheme of things, it is a miniscule risk. For example, one of the most respected texts in public health on the "science" of cancer tosses out a few statistics that you just don't see in the popular media about statistics and causes of cancer (estimates):

33 %
6 %
3 %
3 %
3 %

So...Radon is a tiny subset of the 2% identified as "Environmental pollution". (I've attached a very interesting article in this regard, including a little discussion on radon).

NOW, if I was living in YOUR house, I'd try sealing up the cracks in the basement slab, and re-test to see what it says. Period. If it goes down to 5.7, great. I'd feed my kids a few extra carrots, and make them ride their bike around the block 1 extra time per week. I've probably overcompensated for that radon exposure "risk" by 100X by doing so.

posted on Thu, 02/09/2006 - 8:23am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Totally valid argument, no question.

These things are hard to quantify, and even harder to put a dollar value on.

And you're right: it's one tiny risk among a whole menu of risks, and you can certainly pick a few to minimize that are more worthwhile, like making sure your kids get exercise, eat their vegetables, wear bike helmets, and don't smoke.

Certainly you're not going to freak out about their exposure to all kinds of ionizing radiation. I mean, if someone breaks an arm, or needs an MRI, you're not going to refuse the test because of the minimal risk due to radiation. And if someone offered you a free trip to Europe or Asia tomorrow, you probably wouldn't decline the offer due to the small dose of radiation you might get on the plane. You're sure not going to spend all your time inside the house to completely minimize your exposure to the sun's UV rays. So it's all about peace of mind, really.

But what about this: we live in a litigious society, and now you have documentation that the radon level in your basement exceeds what the EPA has set as an acceptable risk (even if you think that arbitrary level is total bunk). When you go to sell your house, will you have to disclose that? And will it make your house less valuable? Is it worth spending $800 (or whatever the cost is) now to both reduce the very, very, very small risk to your family AND to preserve the value of your house?

posted on Thu, 02/09/2006 - 9:30am
Jeff HEfel's picture
Jeff HEfel says:

After doing some research I have to say that Bryan Kennedy misspoke about radon. Studies show it "projected to be the second leading cause of lung cancer". Actually there are no published conclusive studies of residential radon exposure that prove it to be harmful at all. Every study is based on the effects on Uranium Miners. If I am wrong, please correct me.

posted on Wed, 05/23/2007 - 12:38pm

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