Of Radon, Radon tests, and home ownership

If you live in the New England area, and are about to purchase a house, you will likely come face to face with a Radon test. When you get a home inspection the inspector will likely do this for you. [Even if you waive your home inspection contingency, I strongly recommend that you get a home inspection – in the best case it is uneventful, in the worst case, you cap your loss at whatever you put down with your offer to purchase.]

Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, according to EPA estimates. Overall, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is responsible for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year. About 2,900 of these deaths occur among people who have never smoked. On January 13, 2005, Dr. Richard H. Carmona, the U.S. Surgeon General, issued a national health advisory on radon.

Health Risk of Radon

I had a radon inspection, and the result was that the radon level was “acceptable” [1.7 pCi/L]. The EPA suggests the action level of 4 pCi/L so all’s well, right. Nothing to worry about.

When I moved in, I noticed that the basement had a “passive radon mitigation system”. So I started looking into this a bit further, and other than a bunch of companies who are trying to sell me a test. More credible documents from the EPA, and other places are hard to read, and understand. I tried to find something easier to understand. Hopefully this helps someone else looking for comprehensible radon information.

Here is some high school physics that you’ll need to understand what comes next. Radioactive elements decay over time. When a radioactive element decays, it emits some radiation, and transforms into another element which may, or may not itself be radioactive.

The rate of decay is measured by the element’s half-life. If you start with a gram of a radioactive substance, and this substance has a half-life of 1 day, then at the end of a day, you will have 1/2 a gram, after another day you will have 0.25 g, and so on. Hence the name, half-life.

Another thing you’ll need to understand is where Radon comes from. I’ve summarized that below. The radioactive decay begins with Uranium (U238) and progresses through various elements, till we end up with Lead (Pb206). Along the way, each decay has an associated half life, and a radioactive radiation that is either an alpha (α), or beta (β) particle.

Figure 1. Radioactive decay of Uranium to Lead, including half lives, and emission. Radon (Rn) is the only element that is a gas, the others are all solids.

The important thing to notice is that Radon (Rn) is the only element that is a gas, all others are solid. The gas leaks into the house through cracks in the basement floor, and within a few days decays into Polonium (Po218). The solid particles tend to stick to dust particles (due to electrical charge) and end up getting inhaled. If the contaminated dust sticks to the airways, further decay occurs within the body, and can cause the sensitive cells that they are close to. This is what leads to cancer.

The next post continues with a description of my adventures with household radon meters.

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