January is Radon Alert Month

What is a Radon Alert?

It can be difficult to believe that your home, your safe haven, may actually compromise your health. Yet, the average person can receive a higher dose of radiation at home than any other place s/he may go. It’s called radon. January is Radon Alert Month. If you have built a home recently or purchased an existing structure, you may have heard about radon. The home either had to be tested for its presence and a detector installed as part of the home inspection or it was included in the new build as a matter of course during construction. In either case, most people have very little understanding of it or why they should care.

Radon is a radioactive gas found underground. It is a by-product of decaying radioactive elements like uranium. You can not see it, smell it or taste it. Because radon is 9 times heavier than air, elevated levels are generally found below ground where ventilation is limited: basements, crawlspaces, foundations and the like. Pockets of radon exist throughout the United States, but some states have higher concentrations than others. The National Academy of Sciences has said that indoor radon exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, accounting for more than 20000 deaths per year. Smokers exposed to radon significantly increase their risk of lung cancer. The Surgeon General estimates radon influenced lung cancer results in 2 billion dollars per year in direct and indirect health care costs. Radon was discovered in 1899 by English physicist, Ernest Rutherford and in 1900 by German physicist, Friedrich Ernst Dorn. Rutherford discovered the alpha radiation aspect and Dorn that radon releases gas. The alpha radiation emitted by radon is the same alpha radiation emitted by plutonium.

Radon is a gaseous, colorless, chemically unreactive, single atom inert gas that has a radioactive element. In addition to that mouthful, it is water soluble so it easily penetrates common household items like paper, leather, plastic bags, paints and building materials like wood, sheet rock and insulation. The primary sources of radon are;

  • 3% Soil around a home or structure
  • 5% Well water
  • 2 % Outdoor Air
  • 5% Building Materials
  • .5% Public water supplies

In the 1980’s, The Environmental Protection (EPA) was given the task of developing practical guidelines for exposure. The recommended action level is 4pCi/L. This level has become the benchmark in real estate. It means ‘fix your home’.  A level of 2pCi/L is the considered action limit, meaning ‘consider fixing your home’.  A pCi/L is a picoCurie/Liter of air. A Curie is a unit of radioactivity equal to 1 gram of radiation and ‘pico’ means ‘a trillionth’. The EPA says 8 million or 1 in 15 homes have elevated levels above this action level.  The safety standards set by the EPA for exposure to radiation over a lifetime are based on a 1/100000 risk of death. The radon risk for death at exposure levels above 4pCi/L is approximately 1 in 100. In other words, radon is about 1000 times riskier than any other carcinogen regulated by the EPA. The 4pCi/L is not a ‘safe’ level. There is no safe level for radon. 

Exposure to radon is through inhalation or ingestion. Soil, ground water, building materials that enter a home or work environment that begin to break down into its decaying state. A private home with a radon level of 4pCi/L is exposed to about 35 times as much radiation allowed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as if that family was standing next to a radiation waste dump. To illustrate further, people spend 70% of their time at home, particularly women and children and this can be the equivalent of smoking 10 cigarettes or having a chest x-ray every day. “An elementary school student that spends 8 hours per day, 180 days per year in a classroom with 4pCi/L of radon will receive nearly 10 times as much radiation as the NRC allows at the edge of a nuclear power plant.”   Workplace concerns include underground offices, mines, tunnels, power stations, caves, public baths, natural spas, and lower level workspaces in healthcare facilities, particularly older buildings. As you might guess, underground uranium mines have the highest exposure rates. Radon is not produced commercially but unbelievably, it has been used in some spas for its supposed medical benefits. Radon has been deemed a national environmental health issue because elevated levels are found in every state.  For example, Arizona averages 1.9 pCi/L, Wisconsin is 5.7, Georgia 2.3, New York 4.2 and Washington state 7.5 pCi/L. Click here to use the interactive map feature of the map below.


Recently, media attention has been focused on granite counter tops. All naturally occurring materials including granite, marble, wood, stone and sand contain trace amounts of naturally occurring radioactive minerals, called NORMS. NORMS produce measurable amounts of radiation and radon gas. All concrete products, clay bricks, phosphate fertilizers (garden and flower beds), vegetables grown with fertilizer, glass products made with silica (eyeglasses, wine glasses, mirrors) all emit measurable amounts of radiation. Measurable is the key word. Just because you can feel the heat from a birthday candle doesn’t mean it will heat your house. The same analogy holds true for emissions from your granite counters and other products when diluted with the rest of the air in your home. Testing is the only way to know the levels in a structure. There are no immediate symptoms to apprise you of a problem. It requires years of exposure before issues arise. None the less, the EPA, Surgeon General, American Lung Association, AMA and the National Safety Council all recommend testing in your home. Most radon problems can be reduced to acceptable levels with a DIY kit or the professional services of a radon mitigation company. Interestingly, the US Border Patrol routinely catches drug smuggling trucks through its Non-Intrusive Inspections Program because the marijuana is loaded with radiation-producing potassium from fertilizer. This program provides the technology to inspect cars, trucks, railcars, luggage, mail, shipping containers, etc. with X-ray or Gamma-rays to detect and prevent contraband.

NHS Solutions has Interim Healthcare Leaders who specialize in Regulatory Compliance, Patient Safety, Facilities Management who are all versed in this issue. Our Interim Healthcare Leaders are available to facilitate a review of not only radon levels but also Joint Commission preparedness. Contact us for more information.

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