National Radon Action Month: How to detect a deadly threat

Consumer Reports News: December 31, 2010 08:08 AM

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, causing 21,000 deaths annually and is a growing threat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. To draw attention to this naturally occurring radioactive gas, the EPA held a National Radon Summit last month and during January, which is National Radon Action Month, will be urging all Americans to have their homes tested for radon. If detected, homes with radon can be easily fixed.

Radon is an invisible, radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium and radium in the soil and rock beneath homes. Levels vary from day to day. Any building can have radon, but almost one of every 15 homes has elevated radon levels, according to the EPA. Overexposure does not cause symptoms and once you've been exposed, there's no treatment. That's why getting your home tested every two years is so important.

Fortunately, testing kits are inexpensive and effective remediation systems can be installed for as little as $800. Here are four things the EPA recommends to keep your family safe:
 
Start with a short-term test: Radon is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L); 1.3 is considered the national average indoor level. Although 4 pCi/L is the recommended EPA action level, the agency also suggests that you consider remediation at a level between 2 and 4 pCi/L. You can buy a test kit at many home-improvement stores. In Consumer Reports' tests of short-term kits, we found only one—the RTCA 4 Pass Charcoal Canister $20—accurate enough to recommend. Since radon levels can vary with the seasons and home usage patterns, the EPA suggests following up an initial reading of between 2 and 4 pCi/L with a longer-term test kit (CR recommends the Accustar Alpha Track Test Kit AT 100, $28).
 
• Find a remediation contractor:  If you need remediation, the EPA provides an excellent primer describing the best systems for homes with basements, slab-on-grade foundations or crawlspaces and typical radon-reduction rates. Radon-remediation systems will vary depending on a home's structure, but a system that will cut the level to 2 pCi/L or lower costs about $1,200 for the average house. This is a project that should be left to a pro—you an find a radon-remediation specialist via your state radon office. Many states require radon-abatement professionals to be licensed and the radon-mitigation systems to meet state requirements.

• Maintain your remediation system: The EPA notes that the fans used in many remediation systems have a lifespan of five years and cost $200 to $300 to replace, including labor. Heat recovery ventilation (HRV) units, which cut the cost of running a remediation system by using warm air that's expelled to heat incoming cool air, should be inspected annually and have their filters changed every two years.
 
• Keep testing in the future: You should test your home every two years—normal settling of your home opens new entry routes and reopens old ones—and after doing any major renovations. Remember, some renovations can void the warranty on a radon-remediation system. Our tests also revealed that the $120 Safety Siren Pro digital meter can effectively monitor levels on an ongoing basis. If you're building a new home, there are radon-resistant construction techniques that you can consider.

—Reporting by Gian Trotta

More on radon: To learn more, read "How healthy is your home?" on the EPA's website.

Aaron Bailey


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