Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal-Bulletin, January 23, 1988

Advice about radon from someone who knows -- first hand


PERHAPS comments from someone who has a radon problem will stir other homeowners to act.

Radon is a radioactive gas produced by the natural decay of radium, which in turn comes from uranium in certain rocks. Radon from underground rocks can enter a home through seams or cracks in the foundation or concrete floor or through the water supply. It may even come from rocks used in construction - conceivably even from the aggregate in the concrete.

It is odorless and invisible, and it produces no immediate signs of trouble. So why worry? From long-term studies of workers in uranium and other mines, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has concluded that radon in the home is second only to smoking as a cause of lung cancer.

Last winter the EPA attempted a survey of the problem in homes in Rhode Island. Through RISE (Rhode Islanders Saving Energy) the EPA offered free testing to 1,000 randomly-selected homeowners. But only 190 accepted the offer -- too few for a valid sample. (Incidentally, one cannot volunteer for a free test.)

Some people did not accept the free test because of complacency and the expectation that everything was fine. Others declined for fear that everything may not be fine. They didn't want to take a chance on getting bad news; perhaps the discovery of a high level of radon would reduce the value of their home.

I was in the "complacent" category for several years. Although my wife and I had read of the dangers of radon, we hardly expected our house to be one of the occasional "hot" ones. Perhaps we would get around to testing for radon someday. Last winter I finally did order a test kit. I exposed it in our home for a week and mailed it back to the laboratory for evaluation.

The EPA has set "four picocuries per liter" of air as its "action level" for the concentration of radon in the home. Above this level one should probably take remedial action. Uranium miners are allowed to work in an environment with up to 20 picocuries per liter.

When the report came back on the test of our home, I suddenly became a true believer in radon. We had 30 picocuries per liter.

I was alarmed. And follow-up tests confirmed the figure. The EPA estimates that breathing air at this level implies a lung-cancer risk comparable to that of smoking two to three packs of cigarettes per day; and we have been living in the house for eight years.

At the time, there were few people in Rhode Island who had much detailed understanding of radon or how to get rid of it. So I consulted radon specialists in Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. We eventually chose what, for our house, appeared to be the simplest of several remediation measures suggested by the EPA -- sub-slab pressure reduction. A simple pipe and exhaust blower costing $200* immediately reduced our radon concentration to two picocuries per liter.

The bottom lines are:

  1. Radon testing is easy and inexpensive. The July 1987 issue of Consumer Reports lists more than 50 sources for radon tests. (Locally, RISE supplies a test for $15.)

  2. Winter time is the best time to test your home for radon. In the summer when windows are open radon levels will probably be much lower.

  3. Most likely you will not find a high level of radon.

  4. If you do have a radon problem it will not go away by itself. (Uranium 238 -- which eventually decays into radium 226 and then radon 222 -- has a half life of four billion years.) But there are ways to deal with radon. You can ask the RI. Department of Health, RISE, or my wife or me (listed in the Narragansett phone book) for referral to someone who can help solve the problem.

Please get a test!

*P.S. In the year 2000, remediation will probably cost much more.