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Accurate testing for radon in a house can be tricky; On The Level

Capital - 11/11/2017

I read in The Capital a column by a doctor about radon gas that I seemed to remember some time ago was a big deal as it was associated with a lung cancer risk, then it sort of faded. What is the change if any about the stuff?

If you look it up, you'll see that it's defined as a "colorless, odorless gas" that is associated with causing lung cancer. The association of the gas with lung cancer can be deduced statistically by examining lung cancer rates with populations known to have been exposed to it. The gas is produced by the natural radiation deterioration of uranium found in the earth.

We know from the medical folks at the Centers for Disease Control and the American Lung Association that 95 percent of lung cancers are tobacco related and fortunately that is beginning to drop ever so slightly as more people either quit smoking or didn't start to begin with. But the remaining percentile has radon written on it.

I remember sitting in a conference hall in Houston in 1984 when this scientist from Walnut Creek, California, got up to the podium and started talking about radon in the home and buildings and cancer.

We looked at each other like this guy just came back from Mars. He spoke about testing homes for it and if detected above a certain level what to do the mitigate it. Even President Reagan said at a press conference that he thought every home and building should be tested for it.

I had a friend in sales who was sure we could ride a wave of radon testing to riches and tried to convince me to get on board.

I had a sense then and even now that no national groundswell on the subject was likely to take place. When you go down the list of the things that are likely to kill us, radon is on the list but since the killing is undramatic it's way down the list. But it's still there.

Accurate testing can be tricky so if the test is part of a real estate transaction it needs to be done by a third party with no dog in the fight and who is trained to perform the test according to set protocols.

Even the weather has to cooperate. Winds above 25 mph during the testing period can skewer the readings and invalidate the test.

Some testers will drag in electronic machines that yield hourly readouts. Looks real technical but I question the calibration of such devices even down to how many times it has been dropped recently or recalibrated and by whom. I rely on simple canisters with a charcoal medium of a known reading that will accumulate radon hits when opened and exposed to the air in a dwelling, usually on the lowest living level. Then resealed and sent off to a lab to be analyzed.

Every country has an action level for radon. Readings above the action level will trigger mitigation efforts. The US action level is 4 picocuries per liter of air. A level that is almost infinitesimally small. Other countries have different levels. Europe is around 10. Our 4 is 20 times the normal level of ambient outside air.

OK, so your house has been tested and it's above 4 picocuries per liter. What do you do?

Remediation is possible and most of the time relatively inexpensive. If you have a basement, and most houses with radon do, you have a sump pit.

There are folks who will come in and seal the sump pit and the wall/floor intersection and using a PVC vent pipe and an inline low amperage fan vent the sump pit and by extension the entire underslab via the perimeter drain pipes that drain into the sump up to just above the roofline and into the atmosphere.

When that's been done they install a U-shaped small plastic pipe gauge that has a red liquid in it and the disparity of the levels of the red liquid prove that the vent fan is working. Normally after the installation of such a system they will retest the basement to check if it's working and I have never seen such a system not work.

The installer usually writes their name and date of installation on the manometer gauge. I have seen a basement so large that it took two systems to get the job done but that was rare. You can test your house yourself with kits you can buy at hardware stores but beware they are rated at about 50 percent accurate.

FREEZE ALERT: They are calling for freezing temperatures over the next few days. In addition to all the other chores like taking in the potted plants and such be sure to disconnect any hoses you have attached to the hose bibs at the side of the house. Even if those hose bibs are "frost free" still shut them off inside the house just to be safe.

Keep the mail coming. If you've got a question, tip or comment, let me know. Write "On The Level," c/o The Capital, P.O. Box 3407, Annapolis, MD 21403 or email me at inspektor@aol.com.

Credit: Jim Rooney - Keep the mail coming. If you've got a question, tip or comment, let me know. Write "On The Level," c/o The Capital, P.O. Box 3407, Annapolis, MD 21403 or email me at inspektor@aol.com.


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