The invisible threat: Get informed during Radon Awareness Month

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

It's colorless and odorless. But it could be in your home and causing lung cancer. The invisible threat is radon.

A naturally occurring gas that seeps out of rock and soil, radon can enter houses through the slightest of cracks or openings in the ground level of a structure. Radon alpha particles attach to dust or smoke and when inhaled can penetrate the mucus membranes of the lungs, causing cell damage that can lead to cancer, said Becky Chenhall, one of five radon educators at the University of Georgia.

"Radon is so easy to ignore, because you can't see it, smell it or taste it," said Chenhall. "But the higher the radon and the longer your exposure, the greater your chances are of developing lung cancer."

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking, killing 20,000 people annually, according to the World Health Organization. In Georgia, estimated radon lung cancer deaths average 822 each year.

All homes, and even the outdoors, have some level of radon because the radioactive gas is released as solid rock decays. But some houses experience higher than normal levels of radon inside because the ground below releases higher amounts of the gas.

During January, National Radon Awareness Month, environmental health experts urge the public to test their homes. Locally, test kits may be obtained for $5 from extension offices in Rockdale or Newton counties or for $6.50 by ordering online through UGA at www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/housing/radon.

Radon tends to be heavier in locations with granite. Metro Atlanta, as well as north Georgia, are hot spots, according to Environmental Protection Agency surveys. But experts urge testing in all homes because results have shown that radon could be high in one house and low in the house next door to it.

Of all the Southeastern states, Georgia is the highest in radon concentration, said Chenhall. The national radon average indoors is 1.3 pCi/L, or picocuries per liter, with 6.6 percent of homes nationwide showing what is considered a high reading of 4 pCi/L, or higher. In Georgia, readings regularly register up to three times the national average, and results of more than 100 pCi/L have been measured in the state.

"We recommend that everybody in the state test," said Chenhall.

Tests obtained from the extension offices consist of an envelope into which a charcoal filter is inserted. The envelope is hung in a room of high usage that is lowest to ground level. The test envelope, which is pre-addressed with the lab center information, hangs for three to seven days and then is immediately mailed to the test center by the homeowner. Results are mailed back to the homeowner within 10 days.

For readings of 4 pCi/L or near that level, environmental health experts recommend a second either long- or short-term test before taking action to correct the problem. If the test is 8 pCi/L or above, immediate mitigation is recommended.

The extension offices provide a list of certified mitigation companies. Mitigation experts install a radon vent pipe that runs from the ground under a home, through the foundation and out the roofline. Pipes are fixed with fans to ventilate the air from under the foundation out into the atmosphere. The average cost of mitigation is $1,200. Mitigators must guarantee to lower radon levels to below 4 pCi/L.

"The home can be fixed. You don't have to live with it," said Chenhall.

More information may be obtained by calling the Rockdale County Extension Office at 770-785-5952, the Newton County Extension Office at 770-784-2010, or by visiting www.epa.gov/radon.