Black lungs: Easy to check for radon

Environmental Health Consultants, Inc.

 Q.  I heard radon levels are high in the wintertime. How do I know if my home's radon levels are unhealthy?

 A. With cold weather ahead, every householder must think about radon levels. In the winter, homes are more closed up, and as you heat the house, heat rises and pulls radon out of the ground. Especially if you have cracks in your basement or crawl space, radon will likely circulate throughout your house.

Both odorless and colorless, radon will poison the air– a serious danger to your family. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer (behind smoking) and is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year. Smokers are particularly at risk with radon.

For a preliminary test, you can check radon levels on your own. Purchase a test kit from any home improvement store. These tests will give you a general idea of your radon levels. Just follow the instructions– expose some type of medium to the air, close it back up, and send the sample to the laboratory for analysis. The cost usually runs around $50, which includes the lab fees.

When the results come back (after three days), look at the number of picocuries (units of radiation) per liter of air. If the number is above 4 pCi/L, you are above the recommended level.

Be sure to read the instructions on test placement. Homeowners often ignore these precautions and jeopardize the accuracy of the results. Look for a centrally located area in the lowest occupied place in the house, or the lowest floor that you would be living in. Do not place the kit next to any air movement like ceiling fans, air ducts, or air conditioners.

In general, these home measures are not as accurate as professional readings. If you are anywhere near the danger level, you may want to get a professional reading. Because of the accuracy, many buyers and sellers require professional accreditation before they sign a contract. The above recommendations are for short-term devices. These tests, however, span only 2-4 days and may be affected by the weather. Stormier weather leads to higher radon levels.

The most accurate reading– recommended for homes with near-dangerous levels of radon– is the long-term test. These tests take 3-12 months. Professionals place an alpha-trak detector in your house. The device averages out all the weather effects over time.

Most homeowners do not need to worry about annual radon testing. Test the house at the time you buy or build the house, and after you perform any renovations. Also, if the foundation of the house settles, or if you see new cracks in your basement, you should probably test for radon again.

And if the house falls above the 4 pCi/L threshold, you need to hire a professional to perform radon mitigation– basically, they drill a hole on your bottom floor, use a pipe to suck out the radon and prevent the gas from entering the house.

About 1 in 10 houses in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area have dangerous radon levels. As you go north, there are more failed radon tests. The soil is rockier up north, and radon can move up to ground level more easily. If you're worried, just pick up a home kit, find out your radon level, and work from there.

Joel Loving of Environmental Health Consultants