It’s funny how you can be completely oblivious to things until they come crashing into your life. Or more like stealthily seeping in. When we were looking for homes in the fall of 2009, we never discussed radon. That is, until we made an offer on our current home. We decided on a home inspector, and he asked whether we also wanted him to do a radon test in the basement to check the radon levels. At the time, it was a painful extra expense (since we were still coming to terms with making the largest purchase of our lives). But we decided to shell out the extra $125 for a radon test. And sure enough…….it came back with unacceptably high levels and the invisible gangster entered our lives.
My gut reaction was to cancel the contract and move on to another house as I was perusing brochures on radon from our realtor that kept mentioning cancer. It turns out that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and the EPA estimates that it causes up to 20,000 lung cancer deaths every year. And that is SCARY. But Dain was the voice of reason and calmed me down. We looked into it and discovered that it is actually not uncommon for houses in our area (and across the United States) to have high radon levels. So even if we decided on a different house, it could have radon too. And Dain vetoed my idea to just live in a condo high above the ground. So after taking a breath and a moment to think about it, we decided to continue with our purchase as long as the seller was willing to offer a concession for a radon mitigation system. And lucky for us, she was, so here we are with our story about how we got rid of most of it and how we monitor it now.
Radon is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas that occurs naturally in most rocks and soil (like the rocks and soil underneath our house). Radon is measured in picocuries per liter (funny word and believe me, I don’t just know stuff like that), which is a measure of radioactivity, and radon is a known carcinogen, meaning there really is no amount that is truly “safe.” But we are exposed to radon everywhere…even outside. The EPA estimates that the air we regularly breathe outside could be as high as .75 pCi/L but that the national average is around .4 pCi/L. And although Congress initially enacted legislation to set the national target indoor radiation level at that national outdoor average of .4 pCi/L, it turns out that two-thirds of all homes in the U.S. have radon levels higher than that. Thus, the EPA ended up setting the “actionable” level at 4 pCi/L. Meaning that if you have a level of 4 pCi/L or more the government recommends that you should mitigate your radon levels. Now I’m certainly not a mathematician, but 4 seems a lot higher than .4 when you’re dealing with small numbers like that. I’m just saying. Especially when every increase of 2.7 pCi/L supposedly increases your lung cancer risk by 16%.
All of this brings me back to science class (which I never excelled at and certainly did not enjoy) so I’ll sum it up. All homeowners (or potential homeowners as was the case with us) should check their homes for radon. If you have high levels, put in a radon mitigation system. And then you (if you’re paranoid like me) check your radon yearly or every two years to make sure that your system is working. And we recently tested our house again, which is why I am on my radon kick again.
When our home inspector did the first radon test that we were involved in on our house, the end result was a whopping 6 pCi/L, making a mitigation system a necessity for our new home. Although even if it had been a 3, I probably would have still wanted to try to reduce it after knowing what I now know about radon. The radon mitigation system can be a DIY project for under $500, but we weren’t quite ready for that before even moving into our first house. So we turned to the list of mitigation service providers provided online by the Minnesota Department of Health. And after checking out that site and some of the contractors’ websites and the Better Business Bureau for complaints, we made a few calls to look into pricing. We finally decided on a contractor, and we ended up paying $1320 for the installation of our system. Our mitigation system was installed in December 2009 right before we moved in. And it took less than a day so it was all very easy on our part.
Our mitigation system was installed in our furnace room, and it works by a method called “sub-slab depressurization.” It essentially suctions out the radon from the ground (through a hole drilled in our concrete floor) using an electric fan and flows through a 3 inch pipe up from the basement and out a vent on the roof to the outside. And that’s it.
You can tell if it’s working by looking at the little suction tube on the system in the basement. If it’s above zero on the left side then you know that the radon is being suctioned out.
And it’s heading out this little vent next to our furnace vent. The radon dissipates quickly outside as opposed to being trapped inside a small, enclosed space like our basement.
Our system is guaranteed to reduce radon to less than 4 pCi/L for 5 years. And the first test after it was installed came back at 1.8 pCi/L. But since that one was started by the company (and I’m neurotic like this), we also tested it independently in January of 2010, and it came back at .5 pCi/L, which was even better. The EPA recommends re-testing every 2 years, but we also decided to test this year too. And it’s really easy to do, making it a no-brainer for anyone who has yet to discover their home’s radon levels.
We are lucky that our city provides radon test kits for only $5 at city hall. So I grabbed one of those earlier this spring, and we got our test rolling. The directions are very detailed, and it is easy to do. It’s a little envelope that you open and fill with a small square foam filter. Then you hang it at a normal breathing level for 3-7 days before sending it in.
When you have finished testing it, you throw away the foam filter, and then you seal it and mail it to the laboratory. It’s designed so that you can just pop it in the mail without adding any postage, but when we tried to test in May, it somehow took 14 days for our little envelope to reach the lab, voiding our test result since they need to read a result within 7 days. Luckily, they sent us another test for free, and we went through the whole rigmarole again. And this time, I sent it using priority mail, which is annoying but effective.
And the end result of our most recent test from June 20 is .3 pCi/L, which is AWESOME. Especially in comparison to where we started. So I don’t worry too much when we hang out in the basement since that level is less than what we are exposed to going for a run in the neighborhood, and I’m sure Dain never worried about it. And that’s our journey to rid our home of radon. If you have no idea what the radon level in your home is, don’t feel bad. We were blissfully unaware of this invisible gangster until our home inspector recommended that we test for it (so a big thank you to him). But now that we know, we like to share it with other people in the home-ownership game. If you are interested in testing your home, you should look into whether your city offers test kits at a reduced price. If not, you can purchase them at home improvement stores and online.