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Homefix: Keep an Eye on Radon Levels

Q: Our daughter's family (with a 2-year-old and a 10-day-old) just rented a home in Tacoma, Wash., that was built in 1920. It was recently remodeled, except the basement. The basement is dry, but the kids will spend playtime down there on rainy days. Should they be concerned about radon?

A:We should all be concerned about radon gas in our homes, and all homes should be checked. Radon is a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring radioactive gas, the result of the decay of radium in the soils. Radon is a known health hazard, estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency to be the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, responsible for 20,000 deaths each year.

Radon gas is always with us, whether we are outdoors or inside our homes or offices. Radon can accumulate to unhealthy levels in any home, but now that we have been encouraged to make our homes more energy-efficient, we may be sealing in the radon with the air we breathe. Sealing and insulating just might provide an environment in which radon gas can accumulate to higher levels than what is normally found outside the homes. For that reason, the EPA recommends that all homes in the United States be tested for radon.

In my area of southern Indiana, I have found that a normal outside level of 1.0 to 1.5 picocuries is normal (1/10,000th of a curie of radiation). With our soil conditions, many of the homes tested in this area are above 4.0 picocuries. The EPA recommends that any home found to have a reading of 4.0 picocuries or higher be mitigated to reduce the dangers of radon exposure.

Depending on the design of the home, proper mitigation techniques can range in cost from $1,000 to more than $2,000. By checking the EPA's national radon map at www.epa.gov/radon/zonemap.html, I found that your daughter's home is in an area where most indoor readings are less than 2.0 picocuries per deciliter of air. Mike Brennan at the Washington State Health Department explained that the glacial soil conditions in your area generally do not lead to elevated levels of radon contamination; however, they do find homes with radon levels above 4.0 picocuries, and he suggested having the home tested either professionally or by using a DIY radon test kit.

Radon test kits can be procured online, or you can contact your state's health department for ordering information. Radon test kits are also available at home stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's. The total cost for the kit and the associated lab fees should be less than $50. Professional testing will cost more, but the results should be more accurate.

You should not attempt to ventilate the air from inside the home yourself, as this can lead to elevated levels of radon gas inside the home. Radon gas comes from the soils under the home, so as air is ventilated from the home, fresh air enters from all points, including the basement foundation. Test first, then mitigate if the readings are high.

(Dwight Barnett is a certified master inspector with the American Society of Home Inspectors. Write to him with home-improvement questions at C. Dwight Barnett, Evansville Courier & Press, P.O. Box 286, Evansville, IN 47702, or e-mail him at d.Barnett(at)insightbb.com. Please include a SASE with your questions.)

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