January is Radon Action Month, as promoted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a campaign to encourage homeowners to take steps to ensure they are not being exposed to the radioactive gas, which can cause lung cancer. A test that is available at most hardware stores for about $20 can determine if radon levels in your home are high enough to warrant further testing, or even mitigation by a professional.

Angelo Bavetta, owner of Avanty Construction Services in Westminster, has been a radon mitigation professional for more than 20 years, and said that the EPA campaign is an important tool for getting the attention of local homeowners, who are at particularly risk of radon exposure.


"Radon is one of those things where it's really, really hard for people to see taste and touch, so a lot of time people have a hard time believing in it," Bavetta said. "The bottom line is that in Carroll County, northern Baltimore County, Frederick County; we are on a shelf of rock that produces a larger quantity of radon."

Radon is a gas produced by the decay of the radioactive elements uranium and radium, and itself emits alpha particle radiation, according to the EPA website, a form of radiation that is normally too weak to be harmful outside the human body but which can be deadly if inhaled. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers in the U.S.


Radon is emitted from bedrock all the time and is everywhere, according to Bavetta, but it is in buildings where the gas can become concentrated and pose a hazard. In 1984, a Pennsylvania engineer named Stanley Watras working at a nuclear power plant set off new alarms installed at the plant to detect gamma radiation — high energy radiation similar to X-rays.

"They shut the plant down and said, 'Holy crap, we have a leak,' and no, it was his house," Bavetta said.

The radon Watras had inhaled from his own home was decaying into other elements — such as polonium 218 and lead — and emitting gamma radiation, normally found in the core of a nuclear reactor, from inside of Watras.

"You are microwaving yourself from the inside out, or X-raying yourself from the inside out, depending on how you want to put it," Bavetta said, "That's why it's so bad."

Levels of radiation from radon are measured in picocuries. The EPA defines 4 picocuries per liter of air to be the cutoff, the concentration at which the radiation begins to be dangerous. The average indoor level for radon, according to the EPA, is 1.3 picocuries per liter of air.

"This is when I think scientists just giggle to themselves: 'Pico' is parts per trillion, and curies comes from Marie Curie who discovered radium," Bavetta said. "They want 4 alpha particles in a liter of air, no more. ... Loosely translated, that's what they're looking for."

Home tests will detect radon concentrations and present homeowners with a number in picocuries, and while they are not perfectly accurate, Bavetta said, they can very quickly determine if concentrations are higher than the 4 picocuries per liter cutoff.

"It is very, very easy to get an artificially low number, but it's impossible to get an artificially high number unless you are walking around with uranium in your pockets," he said. "If you take the test and it comes back at a 10, it might be a 20; but I know you are at least at 10."

A test result of 3.8 picocuries might mean a house is safe, but probably warrants the use of a more accurate test by a professional to be certain, according to Bavetta, while a test result of 40 picocuries would mean the house is in definite need of radon mitigation, and could be worse of than the inexpensive test lets on.

"Any time you get over 50 [picocuries], you are really, really getting into danger," he said.

Radon mitigation, in the case that it's necessary, involves the installation of a suction system that removes radon — and excess moisture or other contaminants — from beneath the concrete slab foundation of a home.

"The big fancy term is a sub-slab suction system, which is a fancy way of saying we pull the air out from under the slab and exhaust it outside so it's no longer a health threat," Bavetta said. "I have a lot of people now that are putting in radon systems because they are allergic to mold and mildew because these remove so much of the mold spores from under the slabs."


On average, Bavetta said, a radon mitigation system will run between $1,000 and $1,500 for most homes, although an old Carroll County farm house might run a bit more. They should be checked every four to five years just to make sure the suction system is still working efficiently.

If a home has a radon problem, a mitigation system will have to be installed before it can be sold, which is why Bavetta suggests at least testing your home this month — if the levels are safe, you will have dropped $20 for piece of mind, and if mitigation is necessary, you'll be making sure you gain the health benefit today, rather than just passing it on to the next homeowner.

"If you have a house in Carroll County, you're going to eventually sell it, you're going to fix it for someone else; you might as well fix it for yourself," he said. "The worst part of my business is to put in a system for a house that's being sold, where a person lived with this stuff for 20 years. They're now fixing it for another homeowner and will never get any of the benefits from it."



More information on radon

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