By Steven Burnett /
EDITOR’S NOTE: Back in January of 2012, Steven Burnett was kind enough to enlighten us about radon in a two-part series. Time for a summer rerun, but this time both parts in the same post.
If you live in Ohio or Southern Michigan, and you have purchased a house in the last 10-15 years, you have most likely been asked if you wanted the home tested for radon. So what is radon?
Without getting too technical, radon is a decay product of uranium. If you studied chemistry in high school or college, you know that uranium produces radiation. There are three types of radiation; Alpha particles, Beta particles, and Gamma particles. Gamma particles are very similar to X-rays, and are relatively harmless. That is because they travel very fast and have no mass. Alpha particles, on the other hand, are very large (for an atom), highly charged, and travel slow. Uranium takes 4.5 billion years to decay, radon takes 4 days, and the decay by-products of radon take about 3 minutes.*
Radon attaches to dust particles in the air and about 50% of them become attached to walls, pictures, counter tops, etc, and as a result are harmless. The other 50% is in the air we breathe. This is where the problem with radon and its by-products come from. Our lungs can be subjected to the alpha radiation they produce. The Surgeon General of the United States issued a health advisory in 2005 that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
Before you don a radiation suit, the EPA has determined that only about 2 people in 1,000 might get lung cancer at these levels. However, if you smoke, your risk factors increase 20 times–another reason for not smoking.*
So where can a person go to escape radon? You can’t, it is everywhere. The highest levels are across the Midwestern United States. This is because of the rich sandy loam and clay mixture of soil these states have. Though this soil grows really good crops, it is also very porous. Moving to the top of a mountain in Wyoming, Colorado, or Montana won’t help either. Some of the states with the highest Radon concentration levels are the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. That is because those states have granite mountains, and granite carries high levels of radon.
Getting back to Southern Michigan, the counties of Hillsdale, Lenawee, Jackson, and Washtenaw have the highest concentration levels in the state of Michigan. Approximately 50% of the homes in this area have radon. If you live in the northern tier of Hillsdale and Lenawee, or the southern tier of Jackson and Washtenaw, your home has an even higher chance of having radon. This is because of the sandy soil and higher water table. It is great having the lakes of the Irish Hills so close, but they are also the source of our higher radon concentrations.
So, what does a home owner do? How can I prevent radon from getting into my home? Is it better to buy a new home or older home? What if I don’t have a basement? Do I need to buy a Geiger counter? Should I seal my yard with cement? All of these questions and more will be answered, don’t worry.
Newer homes—whether built on a basement, crawl space, or slab—are energy efficient and as a result “air tight.” When you run exhaust fans, use the furnace, or have a fire in a fireplace, you are literally sucking the air out of your home. Your home then becomes a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking air out of the ground. The foundation of your home has cracks and holes for sewer lines, gas lines, and water lines. No matter how well you seal your basement or slab foundation, some ground air will get into your home. This is how radon gets inside.
Older homes may not be as air tight as newer homes, but because the foundation is probably cement blocks or field stone, there are more cracks and holes for the radon gas to enter. So there really is no advantage to having an older home or newer home. If your home sits on top of a bed of porous or sandy soil, you may get radon in your home. Homes built on top of heavy clay soil have less chance of radon.
Now I have to interject something here that will make kitchen remodelers mad. Think twice about getting granite counter tops in your kitchen. Granite looks great, but it may have “hotspots” of radon in it. Homes with granite counter tops require special and isolated testing to be sure that the source of radon in a home is not the granite.
Determining if a home has radon gas is very easy, albeit expensive. You can purchase a radon test kit from your County Health Department. You can find them on-line. You might even find one in a local hardware store. You can also hire a professional to test your home for radon. Hiring someone will probably cost you from $50 to $200. If you do it yourself, the cost is probably in the $20-$30 range. You can also purchase radon meters on-line. They are much like smoke alarms, or CO detectors, but designed just for radon.
When the results come back from a lab, it will indicate that your home has a (X)piCU (picocuries) level of radon. The EPA has determined that anything less than 4.0 piCU is not a health risk. Anything over 4.0 piCU is a health risk, and the home should be mitigated. The lower the number, the better. Mitigation means (literally) sucking the air out from under your home and blowing it into the atmosphere where it is harmless. The equipment and installation to mitigate a home ranges from $800 to $1500+. This depends on the contractor, what they have to do, etc. I always tell my clients “Do not walk away from a home because it has radon! It can be easily fixed.”
My advice is this––if you have a basement that is finished, or you plan on finishing it, have your home tested for radon first. Slab foundation homes are rare in this part of the country, and homes with crawl spaces are less likely to have radon because of the ventilation.
The effects of radon gas do not happen overnight. It may take years before a person is affected. If you recently moved into a home, the adults may never see any effects from radon gas, but your kids might. Be on the safe side, and for your own peace of mind, have your home tested.
*Data is from Environmental Solutions Association and the Environmental Protection Agency
Steven Burnett is a certified Professional Home Inspector with Journey Property Inspections, LLC, covering all of Southeastern Michigan. He also does radon testing, water quality testing, and lead paint testing.