Radon: What it is and how to test for it

December 15, 2000

Radon: What it is and how to test for it

By Kevin Clapp / Staff Writer

Radon-related contact information

Environmental Protection Agency hotline for drinking water concerns: 1-800-426-4791

American Lung Association: 1-410-560-2120

Cristina Schulingkamp, EPA: 1-800-438-2474, ext. 2086

It's in the water

Radon is not just found in the atmosphere. Cristina Schulingkamp, an environmental engineer with Environmental Protection Agency, says the odorless, colorless, tasteless gas can also be found in water.

In Maryland, it is most often found in drinking water that comes from home wells. She says it's easily treated with a filtration system.

"It's only an issue if you're using your own well water," Schulingkamp says.

It is odorless, colorless, tasteless.

It occurs naturally in the environment.

In the open air, it is harmless. Trapped within the lower levels of homes and businesses, it has proven to be deadly when people are exposed to it over time.


Radon is everywhere. And though do-it-yourself household testing kits can be bought for about $11, it sometimes goes unnoticed. As the second-leading cause of lung cancer - smoking is the first - radon and radon levels in the home should not be underestimated.

"A lot of people don't really consider radon a problem because you don't ever see it on a tombstone," says George Hurd, an environmental/resource development agent for Penn State Cooperative Extension. "It's not something that can give you immediate health problems. The health effects are long-term."

Radon is created from the natural breakdown, or radioactive decay, of uranium. It is measured as a unit by picoCuries per liter (piC/l) of air. Levels exceeding 4 piC/l have been called excessive by Environmental Protection Agency.

In Washington County, radon levels usually exceed the 4 piC/l threshold, according to EPA environmental engineer Cristina Schulingkamp, who is responsible for handling radon questions in Maryland.

The gas enters a home through cracks in its foundation or other openings. Trapped inside the lower levels of the home, it has no place to go, so concentrations rise. That is when a potential health risk is created.

Testing is the only way to know if radon levels exceed accepted limits.

Radon exposure accounts for about 14,000 lung cancer deaths each year, says Mary Ireland, senior administrative assistant for programs for American Lung Association in Maryland. Many people don't make this connection because exposure and its effects develop over time.

"The only time we really get a surge of people to purchase radon kits is when we put in a press release or do a radio spot," she says. "It's like carbon monoxide; they just don't think about it."

Self-test kits are available through EPA, the lung association and can sometimes be found at home-improvement stores. They are available in short- and long-term versions. Short-term tests gauge radon levels from a few days to a few months. Long-term tests are more representative of true radon levels in the home and are conducted over a year.

Hurd says the trick is to get a test kit approved by the EPA, and test only in areas where a lot of time is spent. People should not assume they have high radon levels just because neighbors test high.

"For every home it can be different, depending on the structure and the geology in the area," Hurd says. "Your neighbor may have a low reading or have a high reading, but that won't have anything to do with your test."

Schulingkamp says mitigating home radon levels is as easy as creating a vent outside for radon to escape through. It can cost anywhere from about $500 to $2,000, and Hurd recommends that people who are building new homes install mitigation systems as they build to avoid extra costs involved with installing a system in a completed home.

"It's a very simple solution," Schulingkamp says of vent systems. "It just redirects radon so it's not going through the house."

Though radon does not receive the publicity of other cancer-causing agents, including smoking, radon experts say it should not be discounted, especially this time of year when more people stay inside to avoid the cold. If the lower level of a home contains family or play rooms, children and parents who spend a lot of time there are at risk.

"I think there are many people who don't realize how dangerous it is because it has no odor," Ireland says. "It's just a gas that's found in the Earth's rocks and soil."

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