Radon Continues to Plague Americans

  • David Aschenbrenner from Pro-Tech Environmental installs a radon mitigation system. (Photo by Mark Brush)

There’s an invisible, odorless gas that kills 21,000 Americans every year. We’ve known about radon gas for a long time. But as Mark Brush reports, experts say we’re still a long way from fixing the problem:


There’s an invisible, odorless gas that kills 21,000 Americans every year. We’ve known about radon gas for a long time. But as Mark Brush reports, experts say we’re still a long way from fixing the problem:

Radon gas is found down here…

…in the basement.

Really, it’s all around us. The gas drifts out of the ground from bits of uranium ore. Normally, there’s not enough of it to cause a problem. But it can get trapped in our homes, schools, and offices. We breathe it in. And the gas can cause lung cancer. It’s the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking. And if you’re a smoker – you’re even more at risk.

The level of radon gas in this basement is unsafe. More than four times a safe standard set by the EPA:

So a crew of two guys is here to fix the problem.

David Aschenbrenner works for Pro-Tech Environmental in Ann Arbor, MI. He says radon gas seeps up from the ground and makes its way into the house through cracks and holes in the foundation:

“So as the air is rising through the house, the house acts as a chimney. It’s creating what we call the stack effect. And that’s what’s actually pulling the radon in.”

You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. But it’s often there.

“So with the radon piping, and the radon fan, it’s going to create a suction slightly stronger than the house breathing normally.”

They drill a hole in the basement floor – put a PVC pipe into the hole. And fan on the pipe will vent the radon gas outside.
Right now – a lot of people find out about radon when they buy or sell a house. The air is tested and if there’s a problem – it can be fixed.

Bill Field is an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa. He’s studied the health risks of exposure to radiation for decades. Field says these systems work. But even though more people know about the threat of radon gas – there are still more people exposed today than in the past:

“We’re further behind now, than we were 20 years ago with addressing the radon issue, because more homes are being built that aren’t radon resistant than are being mitigated. Each year there are tens of thousands of home that are coming on the market that will hopefully be fixed someday, but they could have been fixed when they were first built.”

Field says new homes should be built to keep radon out. He says simple changes in home construction – changes that would only add $500 in construction costs – would work. He says there should be a federal requirement to build homes this way, since radon can be a problem in every state.

There are some states, counties and cities that have radon resistant new construction written into their building codes – but more than half don’t – and even in the places that do have the code on the books – workers told us that it’s not always enforced – so it’s easy to just skip the requirement.

The National Association of Home Builders says it would oppose any federal requirements to build homes this way. They say radon should be dealt with where there are known hot spots.

There are parts of the country where radon can be bigger problem than in other areas. But it can be a problem no matter where you are. The EPA has a recommended standard for radon gas. It says that homes or offices or schools should be fixed if they have radon levels of 4 pico-curies per liter or more. But Bill Field says sixty percent of the cancers caused by radon were caused at levels below this EPA standard:

“Talk about a safe level of four pico-curies per liter is really a misnomer. It’s like saying it’s o.k. to cross the road blindfolded because there’s only one car coming instead of three. There really is no safe level of radon.”

A recent report by the President’s Cancer Panel evaluated the progress being made on cancer prevention. Exposure to radioactive radon gas is one of the areas where the experts said not enough is being done. And because the problem is getting worse – they’re recommending the government do more.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

“You can test your air for radon gas by buying a test kit at your local hardware store. They cost between ten and twenty dollars.”

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