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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Radon: A stealth threat to health

Published: Wednesday, January 7, 2015

By KIM HORTON
Health Department columnist

Last month I did something I've been putting off for many years — I tested my home for radon. I had put off testing because I didn't want to know if I had a problem.

My home was built on a granite-type rock called gneiss, a subsurface rock that is common throughout Henderson County, and radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, is found in these granite-type rocks at varying levels throughout North Carolina. The piedmont and mountain counties are estimated to have the greatest proportion of homes with elevated levels of radon. Testing was the only way I would know my radon level.

Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), a measurement of radioactivity. The average indoor radon concentration in an American home is 1.3 pCi/L. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency map of radon zones, Henderson County is a Zone 1, which means that the average home will test higher than 4 pCi/L, the level at which the EPA recommends taking action to reduce the radon level. Houses in the same neighborhood can have very different levels, so every home should be tested.

Why is radon so dangerous? As radon decays, it gives off tiny radioactive particles that, when inhaled, can damage the cells that line the lung. Long-term exposure to radon can lead to lung cancer, the only cancer proven to be associated with inhaling radon. In fact, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. among nonsmokers.

The EPA estimates that radon is responsible for more than 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States. Only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths. If you smoke and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is especially high.

Radon is invisible, odorless and tasteless. This stealth intruder can enter your home through open soil in crawl spaces, cracks in solid floors and walls, construction joints, gaps in suspended floors and around service pipes. Without proper ventilation and air exchange, radon builds up to unacceptable levels. Forces from exhaust fans, gas heaters and wood stoves can draw radon into a house.

The quickest way to determine your radon level is with a short-term test (also called a screening test). This test is inexpensive, easy and only takes a few minutes of your time. Because radon levels tend to vary from day to day and season to season, a short-term test is less likely than a long-term test to tell you your year-round average radon level. But it will give you a “snapshot” of the radon level in your house during the time the test was made.

I picked up my test kit from the Henderson County Cooperative Extension Office. To sample the radon level in my home, I simply left the self-contained test kit in an undisturbed area of my first-floor living area for five days (three to seven days are recommended).

At the end of the test period, I sealed the kit and sent it in a prepaid postage mailer to a lab for analysis. Less than 48 hours later, an email arrived with my test result.

This month, in recognition of National Radon Action Month, the Department of Public Health and the Henderson County Cooperative Extension agency are partnering with the North Carolina Radon Program to provide free short-term radon test kits. You can pick up a kit at either agency, but the supply is limited.

The N.C. Radon Program will also have a limited supply of kits available online at www.ncradon.org. Once the free kits are gone, the website will return to providing short-term radon test kits at a reduced cost of $5.34 (retail is $15). Test kits can also be purchased from your local home improvement or hardware store.

The cost of lowering the radon level in a home averages about $1,500. For families that might struggle to meet that expense, the Self-Help Credit Union has created a loan program specifically for radon mitigation. Homeowners who meet federal poverty criteria could be eligible for forgivable loans from local programs. More information about these programs and radon testing is also available at www.ncradon.org.

If you're wondering about the test level for my home, it was 1.4 pCi/L, a number which indicates there is little short-term risk. But I plan to test again in a few months since radon levels do fluctuate daily, as well as seasonally.

Radon might be a naturally occurring gas, but too much can be deadly. Do you know your level?


Kim Horton is the information and communications specialist at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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Department of Public Health • 1200 Spartanburg Highway, Suite 100 • Hendersonville, NC 28792 • (828) 692-4223