The Risk of Radon

I realize I am a little late to the punch on this but, January is National Radon Action Month and I think it is important to explain why it is crucial for you to check your home for this dangerous gas. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) describes what radon is: “Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that seeps up from the earth.” If this gas is inhaled, the radioactive particles damage the cells that line your lungs, which can even lead to lung cancer. In fact, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and claims about 20,000 lives each year.

So where does radon come from? This simple answer is the soil. Here is your little science lesson for the day – uranium is found in almost all types of soil. When uranium naturally breaks down, it becomes radium. Then, as the radium breaks down, it turns into the radioactive radon gas. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, a shocking one in three MN homes has radon levels that pose a significant health risk. In addition, 80% of MN counties are rated high radon zones. Just because you may live in a new, well-sealed home does not mean you are exempt from this gas. It can be present in your home whether you live in an old home or a new one, whether you have a basement or not, or whether your home is sealed well or drafty. This is all due to the fact that an ongoing supply of radon is being produced in our MN soil and because of how we build and operate our houses based on the climate here.

How does radon get into our well-sealed homes? Well, most MN homes operate under a negative pressure, especially in the winter. Put very simply, negative pressure is caused by too much air leaving the house and a lack of fresh air coming in. This pressure acts as a suction that pulls the radon in through the floors or walls – wherever there is an opening between your house and the soil.

Radon’s pathways into your home (courtesy of Minnesota Department of Health)  

  • A. Cracks in concrete slabs
  • B. Spaces behind brick veneer walls that rest on uncapped hollow-block foundations
  • C. Pores and cracks in concrete blocks
  • D. Floor-wall joints
  • E. Exposed soil, as in a sump or crawl space
  • F. Drain tile, if drained to an open sump
  • G. Mortar joints
  • H. Loose fitting pipe penetrations
  • I. Open tops of block walls
  • J. Building materials as brick, concrete, rock
  • K. Well water

Now it’s time to test your home for radon. The recommendation of MDH is that every homeowner tests their homes for the gas every 2-5 years. The only way you can find out what amount is present in your home is to perform a radon test. There are two types of tests: short-term tests, which measure radon levels for 2-7 days and long-term tests, which measure the average levels for 90 days. The short-term tests are a quick and inexpensive way to check for radon and the long-term tests give you the most accurate average levels of radon in your home during the year. It is best to do these tests now as it is rare that we Minnesotans have our windows open this time of year; this is when the radioactive gas would be the most prevalent. You can buy these test kits at some hardware stores or contact your local public health department to find out more.

For additional information on radon and testing for it in your home, visit the Minnesota Department of Health’s website for an abundance of helpful resources!