What you can’t see (or smell) my hurt you.
That is the message state and state and local officials want to get across this month. In December, Governor Sam Brownback proclaimed January to be Kansas Radon Action Month.
“Radon is a naturally occurring colorless, odorless, radioactive gas which comes from the soil and can be found everywhere,” said Kara Titus, spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. One-in-four homes in Kansas are effect by radon as elevated radon levels have been detected in every Kansas county.
The gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer overall. “The only way to know if you are being exposed to elevated radon levels is to test your home,” Titus said. The Kansas Radon Program is currently involved in partnerships with Kansas State University, the Kansas Cancer Partnership, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Environmental Public Health Tracking program to educate Kansas citizens about the dangerous health effects from radon and how to protect themselves.
The good news?
“Detection of radon is relatively simple,” said Donna Krug, K-State Research and Extension family and consumer science agent with, Cottonwood District – Great Bend Office. “We recommend purchasing a short term radon detection kit.”
Krug said these are available at both of the Cottonwood District offices, (Great Bend and Hays). The kits cost $6.50 and they have an ample supply. Radon tests may also be found at hardware stores and on the Internet, usually for $25 or less.
“Testing is important, because it is the only way to tell how much of the gas is present,” Krug said.
When does it become a problem”
“If the initial test result is 4 pico curies per liter (pCi/L) of air or higher, a follow-up test is recommended,” Krug said.
In Barton County, the average radon level is 4.6 pCi/L. The exceptions are the portions of the county that fall within the 67530 zip code (south central and south west) and the 67450 zip code (extreme north east corner).
The Kansas average is 5.1 in the 105 counties. Only a handful of counties (21) scattered across the state have averages less than 4.
Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency reports levels of .2 to 1 are normal. The average is 1.3.
One pCi is one trillionth of a Curie, the unit used to measure radioactive decay.
“They err on the side of caution,” Krug said. A reading of 4 pCi/L isn’t a death sentence, but it is a cause for concern.
The issue is long-term exposure, she said. Elevated levels can be dangerous over time.
They advise people to test in the lowest level where they spend time, such as a bedroom, living or family room.
Avoid testing in a kitchen or bathroom, since the higher humidity in those areas can alter the test results, she said. The testing device needs to be at least 20 inches above the floor and be left in place for two to five days.
The goal is to measure the potential for elevated concentrations that come from the soil beneath the home’s foundation.
The kits Krug’s office sells are short-term measures. If levels come back high, she recommends retesting or coming back in with a long-term testing kit that takes readings over a month.
These longer tests give a better average, she said. They cost between $30-40 and she can help someone with the ordering process.
If the tests show highly elevated radon levels, Krug said mitigation, or removal of the gas, should be considered.
How is radon removed from homes?
The primary method of radon reduction (or mitigation) involves the installation of an active soil depressurization system. This vents the soil and removes radon gas beneath a house’s foundation.
The vent pipe is installed through the foundation. It is routed either up through and out of the house and a suction fan is used to pull the gas out of the structure.
This process can cost between $800-2,000.
Krug’s office also has contact information for certified contractors, technicians and laboratories to help mitigate radon. Certification through the KDHE for radon professionals was required starting in July 2011.
In Kansas, since July 1, 2009, residential real estate contracts must contain a specific paragraph recommending radon testing in real estate transactions and disclosure of test results, Krug said. There are, however, currently no laws requiring such tests or mitigation of high levels of radon.
Although not mandatory, Krug said having the testing done could improve a home’s resale chances.
Where does radon come from?
According to the Kansas Radon Program at K-State, radon comes from the natural radioactive decay of radium and uranium found in the soil beneath the house. The amount of radon in the soil depends on soil chemistry, which varies from one house to the next.
Radon levels in the soil range from a few hundred to several thousands of pCi/L. The amount of radon that escapes from the soil to enter the house depends on the weather, soil porosity, soil moisture, and the suction within the house.
Houses act like large chimneys. As the air in indoors warms, it rises to leak out the attic openings and around the upper floor windows. This creates a small suction at the lowest level of the house, pulling the radon out of the soil and inside.
Looking at Barton County, Krug noted that the 67530 zip code encompasses areas with sandier, more porous, soil. Thus, there is better circulation in the soil and lower radon levels.