What is Radon?

Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless radioactive gas that is formed during the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, and water. You might wonder what this has to do with you because unless you live beside a nuclear reactor it’s doubtful the average person will come in contact with uranium. But most people don’t know that this dangerous gas can exit the ground and seep into your home through cracks and holes in the foundation and even contaminate sources of water such as wells, reservoirs and natural bodies of water.

Why should we test for radon?

Radon poses various health risks, therefore it’s obvious why testing for this dangerous and deadly substance is so important. It has been implicated in a number of health conditions, most especially lung cancer. Several studies have shown that radon is more of a risk to smokers, but non-smokers have a slightly elevated chance of developing lung cancer when household radon levels are high.

Acceptable radon levels as advised by Health Canada is below 200 Becquerels per cubic meter (200 Bq/m3). In the United States of America, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) specifies the maximum level to be4.0 pCi/L or 148 Bq/m3. Any level higher than that requires that you install a system to reduce the radon gas in your home. About 15 Bq/m3 or 0.4 pCi/L of radon is found in the outside air and 48.1 Bq/m3 or 1.3 pCi/L of radon is the average household value. 

It is important to note that there are no average radon gas levels for a specific city, province or region, and the radon levels of your neighbour do not necessarily corroborate with yours. This important fact further buttresses the importance of radon gas testing for each and every household.

To better help you put the danger of radon gas into perspective, look at these figures shown by several studies into the long term health effects of chronic radon exposure.

Radon Risks for Smokers:
  • With exposure up to 370 Bq/m3 or 10 pCi/L, about 71 would develop some form of lung cancer, equal to 100 times the risk of dying in a household fire.
  • With radon exposure up to 148 Bq/m3, about 29 would develop some form of lung cancer, equal to 100 times the risk of dying in a plane crash.
Radon Risks for Non-Smokers:
  • With an exposure of up to 300 Bq/m3, about 3 will develop some form of lung cancer, equal to 10 times the risk of dying in a plane crash.
  • With an exposure of up to 148 Bq/m3, about 2 will develop some form of lung cancer, equal to the risk of drowning.

How does radon cause lung cancer?

Radon breaks down to form radioactive particles which we inhale during respiration. These particles become trapped within our lung tissue and continue to release radioactive energy which causes damage to the neighbouring cells. Chronic exposure to such damage can induce neoplastical (meaning cancer-like) changes within the cells, which increases the chances of the cells transforming into a neoplasm (cancer).

It is important to note that not everyone exposed to radon gas will develop cancer and the time between exposure and the manifestation of the disease can be years, therefore sometimes making the link hard to find.

It is believed that radon poisoning is the 2nd highest cause of lung cancer after smoking, and as we’ve mentioned before radon exposure poses a health hazard to smokers and non-smokers alike.

So how does radon get into your home?

As we’ve previously mentioned, radon is a by-product of uranium decay within the soil. So obviously it seeps into your home through any cracks or openings which allow contact or communication between the interior of your home and the soil. This includes things like cracks in the foundation and floor slabs, drains and sumps, gaps around service pipes, via cavities in the walls, and through your water supply.

Another important point to note is the ability of radon to contaminate water sources. Radon produced in the ground can dissolve into bodies of water and therefore contaminate them. Over time this accumulates into levels that are injurious to the health, though the risk is far less than inhaling the gas. But the main problem isn’t in drinking the water, but inhaling it. One aspect of this is that when water contaminated by radon is agitated, it releases the gas into the air, which is then inhaled and poses a serious health risk.

When you should test for radon?

  • If you have never tested for radon before – the EPA recommends every home be tested for radon yearly.
  • In Canada, 6% of homes tested higher than the 200 Bq/m3 limit specified by Health Canada.
  • If it has been over a year since your last radon test – the EPA recommends testing for radon at least once a year
  • If your family spends time in the basement – radon levels are typically highest in the basement, however, elevated radon levels can be found throughout the home
  • If you have recently renovated or remodelled a property which has disturbed the soil and potentially created a radon problem
  • If you are buying or selling a home or commercial property

So how do you test for radon?

There are two basic types of radon gas testing devices, passive and active.

Passive Testing Devices

These are devices that do not require power to function, they include charcoal canisters, alpha-track detectors, and charcoal liquid scintillation devices that are exposed to the air in your home for a specific amount of time and are then sent to a lab for analysis.

Active Testing Devices

These are testing devices that require power to function, they continuously measure and record radon levels in the air, allowing you to detect spike and dips in radon level. They include continuously working level monitors and continuous radon monitors. They may also include anti-interference features that reveal if the unit is moved or tampered with during testing. Generally, they are considered to be more reliable than passive radon devices due to the fact that they provide a constant dynamic monitor of the household radon levels.