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Radon 101

April 22, 2024
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Whether you’ve already tested your home for radon or this is the first time you’re hearing about it, it’s important to understand the basics (Radon 101) behind the radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer.

What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas that rises into the air when uranium in the ground decays. Utah has a lot of uranium. As a result, it has an excess of radon that can get trapped inside buildings. Because it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, the only way to detect radon is to test for it.  

Why is radon dangerous?

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer in among smokers. Annually, about 21,000 U.S. residents die from radon-induced lung cancer. Additionally, radon has been linked to other diseases, including strokes, leukemia, thyroid disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The Utah Department of Environmental Quality estimates 1 in 3 homes in Utah has high/dangerous radon levels.

"Most of the things we deal with in medicine, we're always talking about a small chance of making a difference. If you've got a one in three chance of having a problem in your house today, it's something that you should do something about." - Dr. Wallace Akerley, medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute

How does radon enter a building?

Radon enters through pores, cracks, joints, and other small entry points in a building’s foundation. Because radon is a gas, it can enter through tiny crevices, not just large cracks. After the gas enters a building, it concentrates, and if that concentration gets too high, it can cause serious health implications. Additionally, many homes are now being built more airtight, which makes it easier for radon to reach dangerous levels.

How is radon measured and what level is safe?

Radon is measured in pico curies per liter of air (pCi/L). This measurement tells you how much radiation is contained in the air. For example, the average radon level in the outside air is 0.4 pCi/L. While there is no safe radon level, the radon in the outside air does not significantly threaten your health. However, when the radon level in a home reaches 2.0 pCi/L or higher, it's wise to start considering installing a radon mitigation system.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have established recommendations on when a radon mitigation system should be installed. The EPA suggests "considering" mitigation at 2.0 pCi/L and strongly recommends mitigation at 4.0 pCi/L or higher. The WHO strongly recommends mitigation at 2.7 pCi/L. Both organizations agree there is no safe radon level and any reasonable steps to reduce your exposure to radon is worth pursuing.

How is radon detected?

The only way to detect radon is to test for it. Several types of radon tests are available to the public, all providing accurate results as long as the test manufacturer's directions are followed.

The most common short-term radon test is a charcoal test. Charcoal tests measure how much gamma radiation has been in contact with the charcoal over a 48-96-hour time frame. That measurement is then converted into pCi/L. Charcoal tests are relatively inexpensive and straightforward to use.

Radon Sampler Test

Another common radon detection method is a digital continuous radon monitor. Unlike one-time-use charcoal tests, continual radon monitors provide ongoing hourly results so you can follow your home's radon levels throughout the year. They are more expensive than charcoal tests, but they are a good choice for anyone who wants to have their home tested continually.

What can I do about radon?

The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from radon is to test your home. The good news is you can receive a free test by filling out the form here. If your test results are high, a radon mitigation system can be installed to lower your home’s radon level.

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