You can’t see, smell or taste it, but it might very well be affecting your health. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, indoor radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking. Breathing it over prolonged periods can present a significant health risk to families all over the country.
The good news: High indoor radon levels can be detected with a simple test and fixed through well-established venting techniques.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced from the decay of uranium-238, which occurs in rocks and soil in Maine and other parts of the country. Maine is part of a geological region that is considered relatively high in radon exposure. If radon accumulates inside a home, it can increase health risks to the occupants.
Radon gets into a home through the ground and foundation, and can also be found in well water. The gas generally accumulates within a building at higher concentrations in the lower levels and basement.
There are relatively simple tests for radon gas in your home and water source. The short-term radon test devices for screening purposes are relatively inexpensive, and results can be obtained between 10 and 14 days. Longer-term testing (90 days or more) may be needed if your initial screening test shows radon in your building.
Radon testing by a registered radon tester is required in the purchase or sale of buildings in Maine, and now also for rental properties.
Radon gas concentrations are measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). Short term readings between 4 and 10pCi/L indicate that a long-term radon test should be scheduled to verify or rule out elevated levels of radon in your house.
If your home tests positive for a high radon level, the general principle of reducing it is to increase ventilation in the lower levels of the home, below the foundation slab, or installing a positive pressure ventilation system. These systems essentially flush out the radon gas and do not allow it to accumulate or be trapped in the house.
Fixing a radon problem costs about the same as other common home repairs, like painting or having a new hot water heater installed, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s environmental health office.
There are many resources available for information on testing for radon, having questions answered regarding radon effects on health, correction of radon issues in the home and frequently asked questions regarding radon in Maine. A good place to begin is the Maine CDC.
Craig W. Curtis is medical director at St. Joseph WorkWell Occupational Medicine.