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Alabama Family Discovers How to Beat 'Radon Mountain'

Alabama Family Discovers How to Beat 'Radon Mountain'

MADISON, Al. - 291 Dublin Circle in Madison looks like a place where there's little chance of danger.

It's tucked in the curve on the north side of the street, a four-acre lot huddled among the maples.

Tom and Faye Dickerson have lived here for almost 40 years. They've been here for most of their marriage, raising three children when Jack Clift's farm nudged up to their backyard.

With the children gone, it's unnerving to the Dickersons that they raised a family in a house with such high levels of radon.

"It's the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking," Faye Dickerson said. "As we learned more about it, we said we've got to do something about this."

Radon is a cancer-causing radioactive gas, according to radon.com. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Surgeon General's Office have estimated that as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths are caused each year by radon, the website said.

"You can't see, feel, taste or smell" it, Faye Dickerson said. "You have no idea it's here."

Ultimately, the Dickersons discovered that there were high levels of radon in their home and in homes in and around their neighborhood.

Among those with the highest levels were built on Jack Clift's farm, now an upscale subdivision known as Clift's Cove.

"This house here has too much," said Tom Dickerson, surveying his neighbors in Clift's Cove. "That one has too much."

And one of the houses next to those?

Hardly any.

"Your next-door neighbor may have it," Tom Dickerson said. "And you may not."

Here's what the Dickersons did to lower the radon levels in their home.

Tom, a retired NASA engineer with experience on the space station and Hubble telescope, installed a fan in his crawl space.

Easing into the crawl space, he said, "I tried (the fan) first because it was cheap and easy. This was an attempt to mitigate the radon gas problem, to do it as simple as possible."

The fan helped, he said, but not nearly enough.

"Tom is a handyman," his wife said. "He can do anything. He said, 'I think we can do this ourselves."'

Around 2003, the radon gas levels in the Dickersons' home was around 30 pCi/L (pico Curie per liter) - well above the maximum level of 4 that's recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.

For reasons that Tom Dickerson is unsure of, the radon levels are highest during cold and rainy weather.

"When it gets cold, it skyrockets," he said. "It's got to be the pressure difference outside."

Now, though, those levels have been controlled by Dickerson's radon-gas mitigating system. Even in the cold coldest, wettest conditions, his radon levels are less than 4 pCi/L.

In his crawl space is some nylon-reinforced plastic, which traps the radon as it comes through the ground and walls.

From there, the radon flows into some drain pipes on the perimeter of the crawl space. Some holes in the pipes draw the gas out of the nylon-reinforced plastic, Tom Dickerson said.

Ultimately, a fan in the attic pulls the radon out of the pipes and through a pipe in the roof.

The Dickersons believe the high levels of radon in Madison County come from the area's concentration of limestone rock. The radon, they say, seeps out of the rock.

But the hills around Dublin Circle are "eaten up with radon," as Tom Dickerson puts it.

"Instead of this being Rainbow Mountain," he said, "this should be Radon Mountain."

To view this article, visit http://blog.al.com/huntsville-times-business/2010/11/the_dickersons_discover_how_to.html.