We haven't even put away the holiday ornaments and here we are, already five days into the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 'National Radon Action Month.' This observance is intended to encourage the public to test their homes for radon and fix any radon problems that are identified.

We do not make light of this. Radon is a serious, even life threatening topic, and one that many people know nothing about.


Radon is an odorless, colorless gas which is the result of the breakdown of uranium in soil, rocks, and water. It is perfectly natural, is found in every part of the country, and can enter a home's atmosphere through fissures in the foundation where it can build up to dangerous levels. Radon can also be found in a home's well water supply. The EPA estimates that one out of every 15 homes in the United States has an elevated level of radon.

In 1998, The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reported that exposure to high levels of radon over a long period of time causes between 15,000 and 22,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States, approximately 12% of all such deaths. This makes radon the second largest causative factor of the disease behind smoking. In smokers, exposure to high levels of radon substantially raises the lung cancer risks.

Hardly anyone outside of the scientific community had heard of Radon before the mid 1980's, but in most parts of the country testing for the substance is now considered as routine as a termite inspection before finalizing a home purchase contract and more and more builders are installing radon mitigation systems in new construction, just in case.

While radon cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled, fortunately it is easy to detect and relatively simply and inexpensive to treat.

If you are selling a home, it would be smart to test for radon before putting the house on the market. It is likely that the eventual buyer will test before signing a contract and, even though radon mitigation is effective and relatively inexpensive, buyers are nervous people, likely to bolt when things are less than perfect. Better to know about the radon in advance and get it taken care of. You will end up doing so eventually so don't lose a sale unnecessarily.

There are many types of tests, both active and passive. The passive tests can usually be administered by the homeowner; the active ones involve machinery and require a professional radon inspector or mitigation contractor. A simple EPA approved (passive) test kit is available at most hardware stores, costs less than $40 and takes only 48 hours to administer.

There are various types of passive, do-it-yourself kits, but the most common consist of one or two plastic vials with caps and an insert of activated charcoal. The vial or vials are placed on the lowest level of the home which can be used for habitation without renovation. If your basement is suitable for living space you may want to test there in the event a buyer wants to remodel. Because one cure for excessive radon is increased ventilation, test devices should never be placed in a kitchen, bathroom, laundry room or hallway because of the existence of mechanical venting, and the house should be sealed except for normal opening and closing of exterior doors for 12 hours before and the duration of the test; no open windows, no air conditioning. When placing the vials, instructions usually require the tester to record the date and time the vials were open, the location (floor) where the vial was placed, and the temperature of the space.

When the test is finished (usually after 48 hours) the time and date are recorded again, the vials sealed, and mailed to the laboratory that manufactured the kit. Processing of test results takes a few days after the kit is received and many labs provide a telephone number to call for those test numbers.

Results are given one of two ways ' picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L) or working levels (WL). The EPA strongly recommends that remediation be done if the pCi/L level is 4 or higher (and suggests remediation above 2) or if the WL is 0.02 or higher.

If you are making an offer on a house, you might be presented with a form that specifies that radon testing is one of the contingencies to that offer. If your agent does not mention radon, be sure that you insist on adding the contingency right along with your structural, pest, and lead paint inspections.

With such a contingency you have the right to enter the home to place and remove the test. Unfortunately, you are at the mercy of the seller's willingness to cooperate with not moving the vials and keeping the house sealed ' and this may be a hard sell in August.

Radon in well water is more complicated and will probably require a professional (and substantial expense) to conduct the testing. Just remember, not only might you be drinking the stuff, but running water, particularly in the shower, releases radon into the air. Public water supplies are not an issue.

If your house or your prospective home tests positive for an elevated level of radon, do not panic. The EPA estimates that the average cost of hiring a contractor to lower radon levels will range from $800 to about $2,000, less than the cost of a new furnace. You can probably negotiate with the seller to pay most if not all of the cost of mitigation as the issue will probably arise with the next buyer and the one after that should you pull out of the sale.

Mitigation usually involves sealing cracks and holes in the foundation in conjunction with the installation of a vent system. The EPA does not advocate merely sealing cracks. Vent systems, composed of vent pipes and fans, prevent the gas from entering the home from below the concrete floor and from outside the foundation and do not require major alterations in the home. They can also be installed in homes with crawl spaces rather than basements. Radon levels should be verified by the contractor both before and after the work.

More and more new homes are being constructed with radon mitigation systems in place, just in case. These systems are usually passive with the option to become active. Passive features can include a gas-permeable layer, usually a four-inch layer of gravel (in homes with basements or slab-on-grade foundations, not crawlspaces). Plastic sheeting is placed on top of the gas-permeable layer under the slab, and all below grade openings in the foundation and walls are sealed to reduce gas entry into the home.

The home is then equipped with a 3 or 4 inch PVC pipe that runs from the gravel layer to the roof and with allowances made in the electrical supply to allow installation of a fan and an alarm. The fan and alarm are installed if it is necessary, based on radon levels after the house is complete, to activate the system. The alarm alerts homeowners if the vent system is not operating properly.

Such a passive system, installed during construction, will add $350 to $500 to construction costs. Should it be necessary to add a vent fan, a contractor will charge around $300.

Hopefully we have just done our part to celebrate National Radon Action Month. Now, even if you are not planning on selling your home, do your part. Pop for 40 bucks and check out the radon level. The statistics are scary, the test is easy, the cure is cheap. Your family is worth the money and the effort.