By Art Nash
You have probably heard about radioactivity problems at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Fukushima, etc., but may have figured the locations and the problem are far from your home.
While you won’t know from the evidence of a mushroom cloud, sirens or door-to-door alerts, you may be breathing in radioactive gas half of the day, or however long you are at home.
Past research found that 30 to 35 percent of homes tested in the hills around Fairbanks had elevated radon levels. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking. When compared to breathing the indoor air of smokers, the danger of radon contributing to lung cancer is even worse.
Radon is a result of subsurface decay of uranium, which is found naturally at various levels in bedrock. It became a concern for many in Alaska during the 1980s. Many have heard public announcements put out by the Environmental Protection Agency or have become aware through community home construction courses. Others hear about radon for the first time from realtors who are attempting to sell their home.
January is Radon Action Month, and the main message I have is that radon is easy to test for as the home is “closed up” in the winter months. Mitigation can often be taken care of at little cost and in a short amount of time.
Four factors must exist for radon to create an at-risk situation in a home. Two are geological and two factors are determined by the structure and its operation. There must be adequate uranium underground and there must be enough soil spaces for the gas to waft upward from bedrock and into the dwelling. The house must be attached directly to the ground, or have skirting around pad/post foundations, with voids, holes or cracks, which allow radon into the dwelling. There must also be a lower pressure in the house than there is in the soil.
Radon infiltration into your home probably won’t be the same every day or month. Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure, night and day changes in temperature, and the opening of windows and doors can all affect how much radon comes into the home. This means the two- to four-day short-term test that you conduct yourself and is easy to do won’t give a good indication of what the consistent average radon exposures are in a home for the year.
You can hire a professional to give you a several day test that is very detailed, and allows you to see how the dynamics of your home life, such as turning on fans, using range hoods, having many occupants, etc., affect the amount of radon in the home for a given hour of time. Or, unless you are in a hurry due to a pending home sale, a nine-month to one-year test may be more instructive.
In the end, if you have an average concentration of over 4 picocuries of radon gas in a liter of air then the EPA suggests you take action to bring that level down. If you have questions on testing or on radon mitigation, contact me at 474-6366. I am the Alaska state indoor radon manager. And remember, the only way you will know you have a radon problem is to test!
Art Nash is the energy specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at (907)474-6366 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.