In the natural living community, we spend a lot of time on preventing toxins in our home. We’ve replaced our cleaning solutions with natural alternatives. We are more aware of the chemicals in our consumer goods and beauty products. We have decided organic food is worth every penny. Plants line our south-facing windows year-round helping to filter contaminants from the air. Yet, sometimes, we fail to assess natural hazards around us. Radon is one of those silent hazards.
Plants can uplift our souls and improve our indoor air quality. They can filter out chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde. But they do little to reduce concentrations of radon.
We don’t tend to hear much about radon these days. Regulatory agencies educate the public, but lack adequate funding to reach everyone. Some of us may assume our old homes have already been tested or our new homes were built to protect us from radon intrusion.
Radon gas occurs in soil resulting from the natural breakdown of uranium. This gas is present in various concentrations everywhere.
We may also believe since radon is “natural”, it can’t be harmful. But, our air-tight and temperature-controlled homes cause Radon concentrations to “build up” over time. Thus, even though Radon gas is “natural”, our “unnatural” way of living increases its health risk. In fact, radon exposure is the primary cause of lung cancer for non-smokers.
Although radon is everywhere, certain conditions can make your home more susceptible such as: geographic location, presence of a basement, floor drains, subsurface cracks, or block walls. Regardless, radon can be present in any home.
The only way to know the concentration in your home is to test for it.
Winter is the best time to test, because:
- Most of us keep our homes air tight during the winter, with little fresh air available for dilution.
- Heating causes a phenomenon called “the stack effect“. As hot air rises, heat escapes from the top of our house, forcing new air in from the bottom. Since radon originates from the breakdown of minerals in the underlying soil, the introduced air from below ground will increase concentrations inside.
- For those of us lucky enough to live in true wintry areas, snow and ice can form a cap on the soil outside our homes. This cap locks in radon gas, increasing the amount forced into our homes.
- You tend to spend more time indoors during the winter. Even though radon can enter your home year round, the average person is most exposed to indoor air quality conditions in the winter.
Have you tested your home for radon?
If not, the easiest and most cost-effective first step is to test yourself. You can buy a simple short-term test kit online for about $10 to $15* (as opposed to $200 to $300 for professional testing). Your state may also have free or discounted test kits available. Google “Free Radon Test Kit [insert your state name]” to see if your state has any existing deals.
Based on the results of your initial test, you can then determine the next best steps for you and your family. Next steps may include peace of mind from low to no detectable concentrations, retesting to confirm results, or installing a mitigation system. These decisions are up to you armed with the information you have gathered. I’ve shared my personal experience with radon in my home below.
My Radon Story:
In California, chlorinated solvents, such as trichloroethene (TCE), dominated vapor intrusion discussions. When I first moved back to Omaha, I ran a public records search to assess any nearby groundwater plumes. Due to the depth of groundwater in my area, I decided vapor intrusion would not be an issue.
But, after living in my 1920’s Omaha, Nebraska home for over a year, it finally dawned on me to test for radon. I purchased a single short-term (2 to 4 day) passive DIY Radon test* and placed it in the middle of my basement. After 4 days, I filled out the easy-to-use form and shipped it to the lab for testing.
During this first test, the weather in my area was very cold (-10 degree lows two nights in a row). Thus, even before I received the results, I considered this round a “worst case scenario”. Still, when I received the results a little over a week later, they surprised me. The concentration in my basement was 7.7 pico Curies per Liter (pCi/L) – over the “action level” of 4 pCi/L).
Based on lab guidance and the unusual weather conditions, I decided to retest. But, before retesting, I looked for any obvious vapor pathways in my basement. My finished basement wouldn’t allow me to find large cracks in the floor or walls. But, the main drain in my utility room was bone dry.
Most drains have a water trap to prevent sewer gasses from travelling back into the living area. For drains that aren’t often used, these water traps dry out, making them obsolete. I cleaned out the drain cover and filled with a full bucket of water. I then waited over 24 hours before deploying the test. FYI: This step was an afterthought for me. If you have an unused drain in your basement (even a sink or shower), run fresh water in them before your test. Then, check these drains every once in a while to ensure the water traps stay full and are operating as they should.
I purchased two more short term kits* for my retest. One I placed in the same basement location. I placed the second one on the main floor of my home, where I spend the most time. I also purchased a long-term test* (3 months to a year). The long term test will provide an average concentration allowing for the daily fluctuations in weather conditions. I will likely stop this long-term test at the 3 month mark, although understanding an annual average concentration would be valuable.
I’m still running this follow up testing, but I will update this post with the results when they come in! I had to leave a cliffhanger for y’all. 🙂
Don’t have a radon problem?
Follow these tips to keep other common indoor air contaminants at bay:
1. When temperatures allow, open the windows! Not only does this save energy, it also allows fresh air to flush away contaminants.
2. Research groundwater conditions in your area. For spills within a couple square miles, review public documents for health risks. I will likely have a future post all about this if there is interest.
3. Avoid conventional dry cleaners. Conventional dry cleaners use perchloroethene (known as PERC or PCE). Fresh dry cleaned clothes off-gas PCE and degradation products after bringing them home. The main degradation product is TCE, which is even more harmful to public health, especially pregnant women. Health standards warn even low concentrations can cause third congenital heart defects.
4. Look for low to no VOC alternatives for any caulking, painting, stains, etc. you plan to use indoors. If you are renting, and your landlord performs work in your home, ask if they can use low VOC products.
5. Maintain your HVAC system. Routine replacement of your air filter not only reduces dust particles in your home. It also increases efficiency, saving energy, and reducing your impact on climate change. 🙂 Ironically, research has shown a dusty home actually reduces the health hazards of radon concentrations (but that isn’t enough for me to live in filth :)).
6. Use simple + natural cleaning products. There are many recipes online – some of which I provide in my 30 Day Eco Challenge.
7. Ditch the plastic shower curtain liner. That smell you get when you open up a new plastic shower curtain liner? It is phthalates, an endocrine disruptor that affects our hormone production. Replace with a hemp shower curtain* for a completely natural, plant-based solution.
8. And of course, plants do help by absorbing some contaminants in the air, and are very enjoyable!
I’m curious if other countries have radon programs in place. If you live in a country outside the US and have a government program for radon, let us know below!
Peace + Thanks for Reading,
- RadonAwareness.org Myths + Facts of Radon
Disclaimer: I’ve provided this information for educational and awareness purposes only. I am not responsible for the results of your indoor air testing or decisions based on that testing.