The Phantom Menace 

Test for radon if you must—but there’s no need to panic

A few days back, a neighbor called and asked me about radon gas. She wanted to know if radon gas is really as worrisome as the EPA says it is, and how to get rid of radon if she’s got it.
A few days back, a neighbor called and asked me about radon gas. She wanted to know if radon gas is really as worrisome as the EPA says it is, and how to get rid of radon if she’s got it. “After fifteen years of talking about radon, I’m a little radon-weary,” I said. “Can this wait until January? January’s National Radon Month. The EPA puts on a big whoop-tee-doo. There’ll be public service announcements all over the radio then.” “I can’t wait ‘til January,” she replied. “I’ve got to decide whether or not I can let the kids play in the basement.” Well, don’t you know, I’m not going to be a party to filling the neighbor kids up with radioactive radon gas. That’s the kind of thing that could haunt a man all of his days. So I gave my neighbor a little bit of my canned radon speech: “Here are the basics: radon’s a naturally occurring, odorless and tasteless gas, which comes from the decay of underground uranium. There’s a lot of radon in Middle Tennessee. If enough radon finds its way into your house, it could make everybody in the house sick. The EPA says radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.” “I know all that,” she said. “How do I find out if I’ve got radon?” “You have almost limitless options,” I said. “There are all kinds of testers, and all kinds of tests.” “What would you do?” she asked. “Probably nothing,” I said. “In all the years I’ve been living in houses, nothing in a house has hurt me. I’ve never fallen down the stairs, slipped in the tub or gotten shocked or burned. I’ve never stuck my hand into a fan blade, and I’ve never been stricken by the dang toxic mold that so many people are worried about. I can’t even remember getting a splinter. Besides all that, I never baby-proofed my house, and I never worried that my baby would gnaw the lead-based paint off the woodwork. Best I can tell, there’s nothing more harmless than a house.” “I still want to test for radon,” she said. “What’s the best way?” “Since you already own the house,” I said, “I don’t see any reason to for you to pay $100 to $150 for a short-term test. That’s the kind of test we do when a house is for sale, and we have to have test results in two days. If I wanted to test my house, I’d go to www.radon.com and buy a $25 do-it-yourself alpha track test. You leave those in place for six months to a year, and you get a pretty good idea of how much radon actually gets in your house.” After years of doing radon tests for customers, I’ve started to wonder just how useful short-term radon tests are. But short-term tests are the only tests that make sense in a house that’s for sale. Sellers and their real estate agents don’t want to wait more than a few days for radon results. Luckily for everybody involved in a house sale, the EPA approves tests that run for just 48 hours. I’ve often wondered what would happen if a house were retested a few years after one of those 48-hour tests. A while back, I found out. There’s a house in my neighborhood that was once known as the “hottest” radon house in all of Tennessee. The original test result, as I recall, was about 69 picocuries per liter. The EPA “action level,” at which the EPA says the house needs to be fixed, is just 4 picocuries per liter. Well, some years after the “hot” house topped out at 69, we tested it and got a reading of about two picocuries per liter. Granted, that’s just one repeat test, pretty close to scientifically meaningless. Still, it made me wonder how many houses that got 48-hour “spot checks” would have shown very different readings if they were tested every year or two. Then there’s this: even though the EPA sets its action level at 4 picocuries per liter, our friends up in Canada set theirs at 20 picocuries per liter. So, either we Americans love our citizens five times as much as the Canadians love theirs, or one of us has done some sorry-ass radon research. Weirder yet, out in Montana, there are people spending good money to hang out in abandoned uranium mines where the radon levels are 175 times higher than the EPA action level. They call these radon caves “health mines.” Seriously. The mines have names like Sunshine Health Mine and Merry Widow. Besides sitting in lounge chairs sucking up radon gas, the health mine visitors guzzle down radon-laden water. They say it helps them with all kinds of ailments, such as lupus, asthma and gout. There are tales of folks going into the mines in wheelchairs, and coming out walking on their own two feet. You can read all about it here: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/attract/MTBASradon.html. So, what should a conscientious homeowner do about radon? I don’t know. If I were buying a house, I’d test for it, just to make sure it’s not health-mine hot. If I already owned a house, I’d use an alpha track test. But mostly, I’d just put radon out of my mind. I figure drunk drivers are much more dangerous than radon.

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