Have you checked your home for radon?
Your home is a safe haven for you and your family. That is why you take precautions to make it safe – smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, furnace cleaning, and so forth. However, like many Canadian homeowners, you may not be aware of a danger that may be lurking unnoticed in your home. One that claims more lives each year than house fires, drunk driving, and drowning deaths combined. I am talking about radioactive radon gas.
So, what is radon gas?
It is a natural gas that is produced from the ground when uranium breaks down in the ground. It is always present in outdoor air. However, radon can accumulate indoors when it seeps through small openings where a house contacts the ground. Some of the common entry points include, but are not limited to, cracks on the foundation slab, gaps in construction joints, unsealed sump pumps, floor drains, dirt floors and spaces around service pipes.
Health concerns about radon gas
Radon gas is radioactive and becomes a serious health concern when it is trapped in a home and accumulates to high levels. Inhaling high levels of radon gas is dangerous because radioactive particles emitted by radon can cause injury to lung tissue and increase the risk of developing lung cancer. The risk depends on how much radon one has been exposed to and the length of exposure.
Tobacco smokers exposed to high radon levels have a significantly higher risk of developing lung cancer. For example, for a lifelong smoker the risk of getting lung cancer is 1 in 10. Add long term exposure to a high level of radon, and that risk becomes 1 in 3. On the other hand, the lifetime lung cancer risk for a non-smoker at the same high radon level is 1 in 20.
Not many people know that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after tobacco smoking. Health Canada estimates that radon-related lung cancer is responsible for 3,200 lung-cancer related deaths every year in Canada. In Alberta, radon has been identified as one of the top 10 causes of preventable cancers
A 2012 study estimated that as many as 7% of homes in Canada may have a high level of radon, above recommended standards. This means that more than 20,000 homes may be potentially at risk of elevated levels of radon gas in Edmonton.
Testing your home for radon gas
We cannot detect radon with our sense because it is colourless, odourless and tasteless. The only way to know how much is in your home is to test your home for radon.
The good news is that testing for radon is easy and affordable. One can purchase a DIY radon test kit or hire a trained radon professional to conduct the test. A test kit costs about $30-$75 and usually includes a radon detector that is placed in a home for a period of time and sent to a lab for reading. When purchasing a kit, it is recommended to get one meant for a long-term test and ensure that you are clear on supplementary costs like shipping and lab fees.
Testing requires proper detector placement, data collection and accounting for variables like weather, amount of space being tested and so forth. Radon testing kits are often designed to simplify this process. If you are not sure what you are doing, it may be wise to hire a radon professional to conduct the test.
A radon professional conducts testing using approved protocols and in some cases, employs more superior equipment, to do the test right the first time. You don’t want to wait for 90 days only to get results that you are not sure of. Hiring a radon professional may also be the best option in short-term tests or in cases where an objective test is needed. Radon professionals are certified by the Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program (C-NRPP).
Whichever way you choose to test, a long-term test lasting at least 91 days is the best choice. Short-term testing lasting 2-7 days may also be available for special circumstances, e.g. when purchasing a home.
Reducing high radon levels
Radon levels in most homes can be reduced by more than 80% for about the same cost as other common home repairs such as replacing the furnace or air conditioner. Usually sealing possible entry points is not enough because it may not be feasible to find every single entry point. The most common radon mitigation method involves installing a radon fan system with a pipe that runs from the foundation slab to the roof to vent out the radon from underneath the home, also known as sub-slab depressurization.
There are other radon reduction methods that can be used, depending on house characteristics.
Be sure to engage a certified radon mitigation contractor to reduce radon levels in your home. Not only are they trained in the design and installation of mitigation systems, they also do important diagnostic measures that informs the best approach.
Many organizations, including the Health Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society, recommend that homeowners check if their homes are safe from radon gas. Different levels of government have also started to respond to the need to protect the public from radon. In Alberta, the provincial government adopted new measures in the 2014 Alberta Building Code to address the radon problem.
Radon testing should be on every homeowner’s to-do list, just like checking smoke alarms or testing sump pumps. Testing is important because action can then be taken to reduce radon levels and make your home a radon-safe environment for you and your family.