How Your Home is Killing You

By: Greg Ellingson

Carbon monoxide is a well-known household threat, as are lead paint and toxic household cleaners. But one lesser known killer can cause the deaths of over a hundred times more people than carbon monoxide poisoning can. This toxin is present in varying degrees in homes all across America, and can quietly slip through the cracks in your foundation and into your basement. Like most artful poisons, it has no odor, taste, or color, and causes no noticeable symptoms until it's too late. You can get lung cancer from it at a rate that is second only to cigarette smoking. There are estimates that approximately 20,000 people die annually from this unknown threat, and what's worse is the fact that it comes from a naturally occurring event that can't be stopped. All homeowners can do is try to prevent and/or slow down its progress before it claims any more lives.

This harbinger of death is called radon. It is a radioactive gas that is created by the decay of uranium that exists in the ground below us. Soil, water, and rock formations are all sources of radon. It seeps quietly into your home, usually through cracks in the foundation, and if the area is not properly ventilated, the gas gets trapped indoors.

Radon becomes deadly when it is breathed in. Particles of the gas can attach to the inner lining of your lungs, slowly damaging the tissue, leading to cancerous tumors. If you are a smoker, your risk of getting lung cancer is increased ten-fold, as cigarettes themselves already contain Polonium-210, another source of cancer-causing radiation.

Because radon is naturally occurring, there is not much that one can do to stop it. However, there are steps that homeowners can take to prevent the gas from entering their homes.

Your first and best defense against radon poisoning is to test your home for its presence. While most of us have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in our homes, a large segment of the population has never heard of radon, or know the threat that it can pose. Homeowners can purchase a home testing kit that they can use themselves, or they can hire a qualified radon tester in their local area.

There are two types of tests for radon: short term and long term. Short term tests are performed from as little as two days, up to a few months, depending on the type used. These testing kits can give fast, accurate results. Short term tests are especially useful during the sale of a home, when time is short and a buyer needs to know that the property is safe.

Long term tests, as their name implies, take longer, but provide a better overall picture of your home's radon level. This is because radon levels can shift from day to day, and can greatly increase during periods of renovation. To learn the average levels over the course of a year, it is best to use a long term testing kit. Long term tests used in conjunction with short term tests can also be useful when selling your home, as you can easily reassure the potential buyer that your home is safe now, and poses little risk during the course of the year.

If you discover that radon levels are high, seal all cracks in the foundation immediately. This will prevent some of the radon from getting into your home. Don't allow yourself to have a false sense of security by simply sealing the openings; you should also install a vent pipe and fan, which are referred to as "sub-slab depressurization systems." These will help to prevent further radon from coming into your home, as well as disperse existing radon gas outdoors. Other methods such as soil suction can be effective as well, but be sure to hire a contractor who is licensed to install radon systems. The contractor will be able to test your home for gas levels, and be able to determine the best course of action, depending on your home's structure.

Test for radon annually or every two years to ensure the safety of your home, and remember that while your home is your haven from the rest of the world, it is not always safe.

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