What is radon testing?

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One in 15 U.S. homes have radon. Get the simple, inexpensive test that can let you know if this toxic gas is invading your home.

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Radon is a naturally occurring toxic gas that is made when uranium breaks down in soil or water, leaving radioactive residue. Experts estimate that one in fifteen homes have this substance, and the U.S. Surgeon General recommends that all homes be tested. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, causing up to 21,000 deaths per year, so getting your home checked and any radon problem addressed can help to prevent that from happening.

January is National Radon Action Month during which homeowners are urged to have their homes tested for this lethal gas. Since 1990, 1.2 million homes have been built with a radon-resistant feature, but even these should be checked to be sure they continue to do their job. In addition, more than 800,000 homes have been fitted with a radon remediation system that pumps radon out of the basement or affected area.

All living space below a home's three stories should be checked. Several low-cost tests are available through online Web sites from which you can order, or through local hardware and home supply stores. There are two types of tests, one short-term and the other longer. The short term test for those who want to know immediately if their home contains radon can be administered between two and ninety days.

Test types include a charcoal canister, an alpha track, or an electrets ion chamber, along with charcoal liquid scintillation. Long-term tests can take up to ninety days, but are recommended for more detailed results, since home radon levels can vacillate with extreme weather and other factors.

If your home is found to have a radon level of 4 Pico Curies per liter (pCi/L) or higher, your family may be at risk for developing cancer or other health problems. Smokers are at greater risk. These risks can be reduced by installing a vent pipe system and fan, which pumps radon from the soil beneath your home and releases it harmlessly into the outdoors atmosphere. Costs may range from $800 to $2,500. After the device is installed, have your home tested again afterward to be sure the system is working. The EPA recommends trying to get a radon level below 2 if possible.

The EPA's long-term goal is to have all homes fitted with devices or built in such a way that radon is prohibited from entering a dwelling. So far that goal is not reachable, but hopefully in the future it will happen.

In the meantime, get your home checked, remembering to close all of your home's windows about twelve hours before starting the test. Avoid using too many exterior doors, and close them as quickly as possible to prevent outside air from disrupting the radon level during testing. Follow your test kit's directions carefully, and send results in for evaluation. Then be prepared to take action, if called for, should your home be found to have a high level of radon.

Homes that draw water from private wells also may want to have their water checked. Some low water tables may contain radon that is absorbed through water used in cooking, drinking, and bathing, and even when used for showers, the mist releases radon into the air. Contact your county water commissioner for information about having your home's water checked for radon. As with the soil contamination, if your water does contain radon, you can have the pump fixed with a device to keep it from reaching your home.

Pick up a home testing kit today and protect your family from the dangers of this insidious gas.