What’s all the fuss about?
I think it’s safe to assume that most people don’t fret about radon levels in their homes. It might also be safe to assume that most people aren’t quite sure what radon even is. It might not be until you read a news report suggesting that you get a radon test done in your home until you’ll start becoming curious enough to investigate.
What is radon?
So, what is radon, and why are more and more people talking about it? It’s an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that is released from the decay of uranium in the ground (primarily soils and rocks). It’s quite prevalent but easily diluted in the air we breathe from our abundant atmosphere (approximately 15Bq/m3 on average). When confined to a smaller space, however, say your home, any gas’s concentration can quickly rise, and radon is no exception. While the average atmospheric concentrations are low and pose no risk for human health, the World Health Organization (WHO) has established a recommended guideline for radon levels at 100Bq/m3, with an upper limit of 300Bq/m3 being considered tolerable by humans without adverse health consequences. You’ll be happy to know that our recommendations in Canada fall within those guidelines (remedial action is recommended when radon levels rise above 200Bq/m3). Whew.
But what’s with the recommended levels? What happens when I’m exposed to radon levels above those recommendations? Good question. The lines start to blur a bit but many studies, including those more recent, have pointed to long-term exposure to high levels of radon to be associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. At high levels, radon particles can damage lung tissue and over time this can potentially trigger the development of cancer. The good news is it seems as though it takes long-term exposure, and a fair bit of it. As per Health Canada, “It is estimated that a non-smoker exposed to high levels of radon over a lifetime has a one in 20 chance of developing lung cancer. That estimate increases to one in three for a smoker exposed to high levels of radon over a lifetime”.
How does it get into my home?
Radon gas needs a point of access to get into your home. The diagram below highlights a number of possible points of entry.
The pressure inside your home is typically lower than the pressure in the surrounding ground. This works like a vacuum to suck trapped gases into your home through cracks and seams in your foundation, floors, windows, pumps or loose fittings.
Should I be concerned?
Like many common concerns for society, I think this is an example of one that can be alleviated quite easily. Although many homes that are tested for radon levels come back within safe limits, opening windows (weather permitting) to circulate the air in your home can help. Many newer homes are now being built with different types of air exchanging equipment that swap old indoor air for fresh outdoor air through ductwork and ventilation. Since radon levels are traditionally higher during the winter months, air exchangers (eg. heat recovery ventilators) are becoming a popular option (not just for radon-related purposes, of course).
How can I address unsafe levels?
For those interested, kits to test radon concentrations in your home have been made commercially available, but it is recommended to consult with a professional who will perform either a short term or long term test. As the names imply, they both take time into consideration and test the air levels in your home over the course of weeks to months, since natural radon levels fluctuate. They can be pricey, but if you have a legitimate reason to be concerned it’s a good idea to get answers.
The take home message
I think the take home message here is simple. While tests are readily available and perhaps a good idea in extreme scenarios, you don’t need to open a new tab in your browser to order a radon test in your home right away. I do think that it’s a good idea to be aware of the issue in general in order to become familiar with some of the proactive steps that you can take to alleviate any of your concerns before they even materialize (ie. opening windows and considering air exchangers). Smokers appear to be at a greater risk for radon-related health concerns, so if you’re one of them you should pay particular attention but keep the same approaches in mind.