I’m sure you’ve heard that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Lung cancer risk increases even more with smokers. Yet, because radon exists on the atomic level, unseen and unnoticed, the risk is often dismissed. One of the more frequently heard comments is, “I’ve lived in the house for years and never had cancer!” Unfortunately, it’s never that simple.

Schillerstrom Home Inspection offers radon testing for a nominal fee of $125. Typically, the 48 hour test is set up and started at the time of a home inspection. I always recommend a test for home buyers as part of the inspection process. I thought it would be a good idea to share some thoughts about why radon poses risk for the homeowner.

To understand the risk, you need to understand a little about radioactivity. The difference between a stable element and a radioactive element is in the composition of the element. A stable element has a balanced and equal number of protons and neutrons in the atom. A radioactive element is unbalanced because there is an unequal number of protons or neutrons in the atom. Nature seeks balance, and unbalanced atoms are continuously trying to become stable by ejecting protons or neutrons. This atomic decay (shedding) of protons or neutrons is akin to firing a cannon. If the cannon ball hits a cell, cellular damage can occur.

Illustration of alpha particle being ejected from an atomic element.

Alpha decay

Radon starts with uranium. As uranium degrades, it becomes a different element. (After all, it no longer contains the proper number of protons and neutrons that make it ‘uranium’.) Radon is an element that is formed from that decay chain.

Radon, and its progeny, attach themselves to dust and other surfaces and are breathed into the lungs. Once the elements enter our lungs, damage can begin as the decay chain continues. The human body can mend itself…up to a point…but long-term exposure to radon can eventually wear the body down and begin damaging the lung’s cells, leading to cancer.

Uranium is one of the more common elements in the earth’s crust and can be found in the earth almost everywhere. It follows, then, that radon can be found anywhere. As the earth shifts and changes, radon works its way to the surface. A home’s structure can act as a catch basin if radon is present. It does not matter if a home is built on a slab, over a crawlspace or has a full basement: if radon is present, it will work its way into the living areas without proper mitigation efforts.

One of the more quirky aspects of radon is that it’s possible for one house on a street to have high levels of radon, even though every other house on a block has low levels. The presence is not predictable. Radon levels can fluctuate with the seasons, weather and shifts in the earth. Testing is a snapshot indicator of radon levels present/not present. The test results can differ over time and a house should be tested every few years to make sure levels remain safe. Inexpensive test kits can be obtained at most hardware stores for a homeowner to conduct their own testing. (The more advanced testing equipment I use is necessary to generate readings quickly, during the brief inspection period for a home purchase.

Photo showing how radon gas enters a house

How radon gas enters a house

When the homeowner decides to test for radon, I strongly recommend using a test company that is NOT your possible mitigation contractor. There is an ethical conflict of interest when the person testing also turns around and resolves the problem. There are many excellent, reputable companies out there but it only takes one unscrupulous contractor to provide false results just to get work mitigating a (false) radon issue.

One other admonition: testing only needs to be done in the livable spaces of a home. I have seen companies advertise testing for crawl spaces. Unless you plan on living in the crawl space, it does not matter what the readings are in that area. If you have an unfinished basement that you use, then testing should be conducted in that area. The guidelines for testing are to test for radon in the lowest livable area of a dwelling. If the crawlspace shows a high reading but the living space does not, you may be persuaded to pay for mitigation when you don’t need to!

Radon testing should be conducted on each home. If levels are high, mitigation is a very simple procedure. For the safety of the occupants, please check your radon levels!