The sun is shining, the birds are singing and there’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s a good day to dust off the boom box and go outside to pull a few weeds and just enjoy being alive except ... the radio keeps asking me if my home has radon.
Well, does it? And what is radon, anyway?
Radon is a radioactive gas that seeps up and out from the earth into the ambient air nearly everywhere, nearly all the time. It is created by the natural decaying process of uranium found in nearly all soils.
Radon rises from cracks in a basement or holes in a slab or comes into a home through water from wells or even from building materials.
Some agencies contend as many as 1 in 15 homes has a sufficient concentration of this odorless, tasteless and otherwise unnoticed gas built up to eventually cause lung cancer, making radon second only to cigarette smoking as a leading cause of the disease.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 21,000 people in the U.S. may die every year from lung cancer caused by inhaling particles emitted by radon as it decays. The estimate has an uncertainty range of 8,000 to 45,000.
Cigarette smokers who live in homes infiltrated by high levels of radon are doubly at risk. Radon is classified as the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
How did we discover the threat of radon?
The case of a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant worker was one story that caught the attention of the U.S. government in 1984.
Stanley Watras, a construction engineer who was helping build the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant in Pottsville, set off the radiation alarms on his way in to work one morning. This was doubly curious as Watras was entering rather than exiting the plant and because the facility was still under construction and no radioactive material had yet been brought in to the plant.
In searching for an explantation, his cohorts tested his home.
Radon measurements are expressed as the amount of picocuries per liter.
The average concentration of radon in outdoor air is .4 pCi/L, and a level of 4 pCi/L is considered a health risk and is actionable. The amount of radon measured in Watras’ home averaged 2,700 pCi/L. The reading was simply massive, so much so that he set off alarms just showing up for work.
This discovery also set off alarms in Washington, D.C.
EPA vs. Nature
The Environmental Protection Agency was established Dec. 2, 1970, to address five environmental hazards: pesticides, water pollution, air pollution, solid waste disposal and radiation.
After Watras, radon became a concern of the EPA.
From the federal level, the EPA breaks down efforts into regions with Kentucky in Region 4. States receive support via their region, and this passes through to counties that, in Kentucky, serve their population ultimately through county health departments.
The EPA website has background information and links to resources and publications of initiatives such as the “Federal Radon Action Plan,” a one-year initiative that began in June 2011 with a directive to drive demand for services:
“With this plan as a catalyst, industry and nonprofit ally organizations will be ready to build on and increase the impact of the ideas for action contained in the federal strategy. These complementary efforts will create the demand needed for thousands of new jobs in the housing sector for radon testing, mitigation and new construction.”