Radon—the silent, invisible, odorless killer

A few years ago, Ron Anderson of New Ulm saw a Brown County Public Health newspaper advertisement in The Journal about radon test kits available in the public health office. He got one, noticed an action level reading and wound up buying an active radon mitigation system for his home.

Radon is a serious public health issue in Minnesota, with 2 in 5 homes tested with radon levels that are a major health risk, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

Minnesota has high radon levels due to its unique geology and cold climate. During the winter, home heating systems tend to draw in radon gas from the soil, increasing home radon levels. Many Minnesotans use basements as living space, increasing radon exposure.

The U.S. Surgeon General has warned that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths.

If your home has high radon levels and you smoke, you risk of lung cancer is even higher.

Radon accounts for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year in the U.S.

You don’t have to be a smoker to get lung cancer; 2,900 lung cancer deaths were nonsmokers.

Your home can have high radon levels whether it is old or new, well-sealed or drafty, and with or without a basement. All houses have some radon, but even houses next to each other can have very different radon levels.

The only way to measure your radon risk is to test your home. If you have high radon levels, there are ways to reduce it.

Radon is produced from the natural decay of uranium found in nearly all soils. Uranium breaks down to radium, which turns into radon, a radioactive gas.

Radon enters homes in concrete slab cracks and concrete block pores and cracks, floor-wall joints, and spaces behind brick veneer walls that rest on uncapped, hollow-block foundations, exposed soil as in a sump or crawl space, weeping (drain) tile, if drained to an open sump.

It can also enter buildings via mortar joints, loose-fitting pipe penetrations, open tops of block walls, in brick, concrete and rock and possibly in well water, according to the MDH.

After testing his home using a kit he got from the Brown County Public Health office, Anderson had his home tested professionally by a local company that had a much more complex radon measuring device. Detailed radon results showed that radon levels varied each hour and reached as high as 13.65.

Radon readings of 2 to 4 are considered high. Readings above 4 pose a significant health risk and nearly 80% of Minnesota counties are rated with an average radon reading above 4, according to the MDH.

“We feel comfortable living in our house now, knowing we’re safe from radon. We’re healthy and happy,” Anderson said. “Most, 75 to 80 percent of Minnesota homes have radon above safe levels. Many people don’t know much about it, but people die from it.”

Anderson’s radon mitigation system has a fan powered by a small, roof-mounted solar panel that energizes a battery, that draws radon from the basement floor, through a PVC vent pipe to the roof.

Is the cost of the system worthwhile?

“What’s your life worth?” Anderson asked.

Brown County Public Health Director Karen Moritz said her office at 1117 Center has free, short-term radon test kits and a small number of $12 long-term radon test kits left. After remaining stock is gone, long-term kits will be available for $17.

Short-term test kits are often hung in the lowest residential living areas for 2 to 7 days before they are mailed in and tested. Long-term test kits hang for 90 days before they are mailed in to be read. “Trouble is, many people hang them and forget to remove them and mail them in,” Moritz said.

Digital radon detectors are now available on the retail market. The devices can do short-term radon tests and long-term radon monitoring, the latter of which the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends.

Moritz said there is no current financial programs to help people install radon mitigation systems.

“Radon is a significant concern,” Moritz said. “After tobacco, it’s the leading cause of lung cancer. It has no smell and is invisible.”

Moritz said many Gold Standard homebuilders install active radon mitigation systems when they build homes.

For more information, visit www.health.state.mn.us/radon