OK, no more fooling around, no more procrastinating. It’s January and the time has come to make good on all of those New Year’s resolutions. It’s time to stop smoking, start exercising, cut back on caffeine, embark on a new diet, get more sleep, and do all of those things that will make you happier and healthier in the coming year. In general, it’s time to spend money and commit time and resources to improve your quality of life, while modifying your behavior to live a healthier lifestyle.
What if someone told you that in spite of all of those efforts, you may be placing your health and the health of those who live with you in peril by ignoring a life-threatening hazard in your own home? By unwittingly continuing to harbor an insidious intruder in your home there is an increased chance that you, your children or your other house mates (especially those who smoke or have a history of chronic lung disease), might develop a life-ending illness. What if there were minimal costs to expel that intruder and there was no behavior modification required? Would that be something worth putting at the top of your list of New Year’s resolutions?
The insidious intruder of which I speak is a cancer-causing, radioactive gas that the Surgeon General has identified as the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.
Radon gas, which accounts for approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, is second only to smoking as a source for lung cancer. However, unlike tobacco smoke, it is colorless and odorless, and is undetectable without specialized equipment. Radon is a product of the decay of uranium that is present in most rock, especially rocks containing granite. Radon gas rises out of the soil to be disbursed by surface air movement. If the route of exit from the ground is blocked by a home foundation and concrete slab, the gas enters that structure through cracks and gaps in the building components. When radon escapes the soil in an open space it poses little if any health threat as it is diluted with fresh air and carried away by surface air movement. In contrast, when it finds its way into a home, the absence of that fresh air to dilute it allows the gas to build up to what can sometimes be dangerously high concentrations. Radon is present in some building materials but not in sufficiently high concentrations to pose a health hazard. Radon can also contaminate well water which is then either taken in orally or disbursed into the air through activities such as showering, adding to elevated levels of airborne contamination (although this is less common than exposure to gas in the air).
As Radon gas ages, it too decays into other radioactive chemical elements. Along with the Radon gas, these also give off radioactive energy that can be inhaled directly or may stick to other particles in the air such as dust, pollen or the products of smoking found in cigarette smoke. As these particles enter the lungs they fire off radiation through lung tissue that can damage the lungs or possibly cause changes leading to lung cancer.
The area of the home that has the highest health risk is the lowest livable level (the one closest to the point of entry for Radon). Contrary to popular belief, the gas is just as likely to accumulate on the first floor of a home that does not have a basement as it is to accumulate in a basement.
Radon gas has been found in most parts of the country and has been identified in high concentrations in several counties in Maryland including Carroll, Montgomery, Howard, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford and Washington, according to information provided by the EPA and various state and county health departments. Of those, Washington, Frederick and Carroll rank as the three counties with the highest average measured levels. Radon levels are measured in “picocuries per liter of air” expressed as pCi/L. There is no safe level of Radon; however, the EPA has set the lowest level where action should be taken to reduce radon levels in the home at 4 pCi/L. According to information provided by the EPA and Carroll County Health Department, the average level of Radon in Carroll County is 10.1 pCi/L. The number of homes in Carroll County with reported levels of Radon higher than 4 pCi/L is nearly 50 percent.
So, now back to our New Year’s resolutions. Knowing that there is a high probability of a dangerous agent lurking in your house, of all the initiatives you plan to undertake to promote improved health in your household, don’t you think identifying Radon contamination in your home should be first on that list? Let’s get the New Year started off right. January is Radon Action Month. Test your home for Radon today.
Bob Moody writes from Westminster and is the owner of Diligent Home Inspections LLC, which provides radon testing.