Radon Gas photos: P 188-P 191
While we're on the lovely topic of lung cancer, let's talk about radon. A radon lab technician told me the story about how radon was discovered. I thought you might find it interesting. There was a man who lived in Reading, Pennsylvania that worked for some type of nuclear laboratory. When he used to go to work, he would set off the radiation detectors at the lab. The radiation detectors are installed so that the nuclear lab can monitor their employees to see if they're being exposed to radiation inside the lab. The lab employees couldn't figure out why the detectors were setting off, so they tested his house for radiation. While studying the problem, they stumbled upon radon gas. (Fortunately or unfortunately for mankind. I guess it's just another way to develop cancer. Like there aren't enough already!)
Radon gas testing is really becoming a daily part of all real estate sales transactions. It's a great additional source of income and you should consider providing this service as well. Radon is a radiation gas that's released naturally by rocks and soil in the earth. The radiation gas is created by the natural breakdown or Uranium in the rocks and soil that leads to a by product called Radium. This radiation gas gradually seeps up from the ground and as long as it goes out into the open air it's not a problem. However, if the radon seeps through cracks in the foundation floor and walls it'll become trapped in the house and the levels will rise.
Some houses will be left vacant while they're being sold. The point is, that if a house has a high radon reading, don't let anyone tell the client that it's only because the house was sealed up.
Some houses will be left vacant while they're being sold. Many people think this will increase the radon level reading because no windows or doors are being opened. However, radon has a half life of only 3.825 days. Because of this fact, the maximum radon level that could build up would be just under a 4 day high level. After that point, some radon will decay and then be replenished by new radon gas entering the house. The point is, that if a house has a high radon reading, don't let anyone tell the client that it's only because the house was sealed up! Realtors like to use the excuse that a house was vacant and that's the only reason why it has a high radon reading. Don't let anyone make your client think that when he moves in the radon level will be OK. If anyone says that, then tell that person to move into the house and call us in about 10 years after they have a chest X-ray.
As with asbestos and other environmental and health concerns, call your State Environmental Protection Agency office for their information, brochures and classes. The EPA considers radon to be the number 2 leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking, so it's not something to take too lightly. Some experts feel that the Environmental Protection Agency has over exaggerated the problem but I would let the client decide that for themselves. Don't try to make the decision for them.
The EPA uses a reading of 4 Pico Curies per liter to determine the maximum radon level in a house before mitigation is recommended. I will give you some background so you have an idea of how Pico Curies are measured. The EPA office in my area says that one Pico Curie is the average indoor radon level and this is equal to getting about 100 chest X-rays per year. Now that may seem very high, but let me put it in the proper perspective. The EPA also informed me that the amount of radiation you receive from a normal chest X-ray, usually isn't as high as most people think. For example, with a reading of one Pico Curie per liter, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3-13 people out of 1,000 will die of lung cancer. This is similar to a nonsmoker's risk of dying of lung cancer.
With a reading of 4 Pico Curies per liter, it's estimated that 13-50 people out of 1,000 will die of lung cancer. This is similar to five times the nonsmoker's risk of dying of lung cancer. You still may want to inform your client about this so that they an decide for themselves if the radon levels found are acceptable to them or not. Don't take it upon yourself to make the decision for your client.
Mitigation s the term used for the treatment to remove the radon problem by reducing the levels in the house. When a house is mitigated, the radon contractor will seal all open cracks in the lower level walls and floors that they can find. They then drill a hole in the foundation floor which looks like a sump pump pit. Instead of installing a sump pump in this pit, the contractor will install a fan with pipes leading to the outside of the house. In some areas, the local codes require that these pipes discharge above the roof line. This will help prevent the radon from entering back into the house through an open window. The purpose of the mitigation is to vent all radon gas that builds up underneath the foundation, to the exterior of the house.
In some areas the radon levels tend to be higher than in other areas but all houses will get some radon gas reading!!! So don't let any Realtors, sellers, or other third parties talk your client out of getting an accurate radon test done.
In some areas the radon levels tend to be higher than in other areas but all houses will get some radon gas reading!!! So don't let any Realtors, sellers, or other third parties talk your client out of getting an accurate radon test done. Sometimes they'll say to your client, "Oh, you don't have to worry we don't have radon in this area." HOGWASH!!!!! All houses will have a radon reading, even if it's minor trace element readings of 0.5 Pico Curie per liter. This is because radon is everywhere according to the EPA. There is always an average of 0.4 Pico Curie per liter reading in the air of the atmosphere. EPA has found that the average indoor radon level is 1.5 Pico Curies per liter.
It's also important to inform your client that you might not have a high radon reading today but you might have a high reading a month from now. Or you might have a high reading and your neighbor might not and vice versa. I tested a house in the middle of August once that had a radon reading of 3.5 Pico Curies per liter. In August the readings are generally lower because the windows and doors are open more due to the warm weather, and people are going in and out of the house more often. That deal fell through and I did a radon test for another client who made an offer on that same house in January, just five months later. In January the readings are generally higher because the house is sealed up more due to the cold winter months. The lab and I couldn't figure it out, but the January reading came in at 0.9 Pico Curie per liter. The reason for this is that radon is a radiation gas that's unstable and it fluctuates. There are many factors that affect the radon level in a house, some of which include:
- The time of the year and the climate.
- The type of soil and rocky terrain in the area around and under the house.
- The type of construction of the house.
- And there are other reasons as well.
Because of these factors, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you retest for radon every six months. This will help to make sure that the radon levels are acceptable on a continual basis. It's also another source of income to retest all of your client's homes every six months. Believe it or not, radon can even be found in water! That's another reason to have a laboratory analyze well water samples. You are not misleading people or trying to milk them for money. You're simply showing them the EPA recommendations for retesting because of the unpredictability of radon.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency there currently is no evidence that there is a health problem with drinking water with radon in it. This is because radon becomes soluble (dissolves) in water. The colder the temperature of the water then the more radon will dissolve in it. The health concern of having radon in your water is that the gas is released into the air. The water releases the radon gas whenever you run the faucet or dishwasher, take a shower, flush a toilet, use the washing machine, etc. Anytime you aerate the water you'll be releasing the radon gas into the house and this is when it becomes a health concern.
The current standards that the EPA uses for the acceptable levels of radon in the water are 10,000 to 1. Meaning that for each 10,000 Pico Curies per liter of radon gas that you have in your water, you will be releasing about one Pico Curie per liter into the air in the house. For example, if you have a radon water reading of 40,000 Pico Curies per liter. Then you will have 4 Pico Curies per liter escaping into the air of the house. This is the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency recommends mitigation. Currently there is no evidence of a correlation between having a high radon reading in the air in relation to the radon reading in the water of a house. For example, let's say that you have a high radon reading in the air of your house. Well, this doesn't mean that you'll definitely have a high radon reading in the water of your house and vice versa.
Air radon gas testing is usually done with a small, round metal canister that has charcoal inside. A canister is left in the house for about 3-5 days and then it's sealed and mailed back to the radon lab for analysis. Sometimes the seller or occupant of the house will ask you if there is a health risk of being in a house while a canister is there. Radon canisters don't emit anything hazardous. The charcoal inside the canisters merely absorbs the air in the room where they're placed so the lab can analyze them. Radon canisters do not present a health risk to the occupants of the house.
You want to make sure that you purchase your radon testing canisters from a reputable lab. Don't just buy radon cans off the shelf of the local hardware store. The reason for this is that what makes a radon reading accurate is not the canister you use. The radon reading accuracy is determined by the sophistication of the lab's analyzing equipment. You could send the same canister to two different labs and get two totally different readings. So check the lab out and make sure they're good. That's another reason why you shouldn't let any Realtors, sellers, or other third parties talk your client out of getting an accurate radon test done. Sometimes they'll say to your client: "Oh, you don't have to test for radon, the seller already did that when they bought the house and he's willing to give you a copy of the test results for free!" (That sounds like the spider talking to the fly!) How do you know how accurate the lab's equipment was that analyzed the seller's canister? How do you know the canister wasn't tampered with? Just because the seller had a low reading when he bought the house, doesn't mean that there's a low reading in the house now. Remember, radon is always fluctuating.
Most labs recommend that you place the canister about three feet above the floor in the lowest area of the house. I always put the canister in the basement. However, some labs say you should put the canister in the lowest livable area of the house. This would be the floor above the basement. The EPA feels that if a basement has the potential to become a livable area in the future, then that's where the radon level should be tested due to the future potential use of the basement.
I always put the canister in the basement instead of the first livable floor. I do this because the lower level is where you're going to get the highest radon reading. Any readings on the first floor will be lower then the radon reading in the basement level. The client might not be worried about a high reading in the basement because he won't be down there that often. However, if you get the highest possible reading in the house, then it's his decision as to whether he wants to mitigate. Once again, let the client decide what he wants to do. You only provide recommendations and objective opinions. (You certainly don't want a former client calling you up 10 years after you inspected his house, to complain that his doctor told him that his lungs now glow in the dark!!)
There is another benefit of testing for radon in the lowest level. That benefit is that if you only test on the first livable floor, the reading may be below the EPA 4 Pico Curie per liter limit. However, what if the client moves in and decides he wants to finish the basement and make a playroom out of it? What if he finds that the radon level down there is above the EPA limit? Then you might have an angry client on your hands because you didn't warn him about it. If the client decides to test with two canisters; one in the basement and one on the first floor, then that's fine. Just make sure you charge him for an additional canister!
There's another point about radon that you have to stress to the client. That point concerns the potential of any tampering with the radon canister while it's left in the house. There's a million ways to alter a radon reading so that it comes in too low. But there's no way to make a reading come in too high. When you leave that house you have no control over anyone else tampering with the radon canister. Obviously, some actions taken by dishonest third parties will alter the radon reading. Just tell the client that you can't control what happens when you're not there. Also, recommend that the client retest after he moves in.
There are tamper resistant cages on the market that will monitor the radon canister. These cages have timers on them and if the canister is moved, the timer will be reset. A reset timer will be noticeable when you go back to pick up the canister and cage. You can charge more for providing this service. However, it must be noted that even with a tamper resistant cage, the radon reading can still be altered. A less expensive way to monitor radon canisters for tampering is to use a tamper resistant tape on the radon canisters. The tape isn't as effective as the cages to detect tampering, but it's easier and cheaper to use. These special adhesive tapes have a label and glue on one side. The tape is applied to the canister and the table that it rests upon. Windows and doors can also be taped shut so they can be monitored during the testing. If the canister is moved or the window or door is opened, then the label on the tape will come off the backing and it will be noticeable when you return to the house.
I charge more for doing radon testing with the tamper resistant cages and the tamper resistant tapes. This service provides the client with a much better chance of getting a reliable and accurate reading. It helps to reduce the chance of someone intentionally altering the radon analysis at the site. However, as I said, these devices are very helpful in preventing tampering but they're not foolproof. I've actually caught sellers of houses in the act of tampering with radon canisters! So don't kid yourself or your client and think that no one tampers with these canisters. You may find out the hard way that you're wrong.
Water radon gas testing is usually done with a special water bottle. The water sample must be obtained without letting any aeration of the water. Any aeration would release as much as 99% of the radon in the water sample. The testing bottle has to seal the faucet so that it traps all of the radon gas as the bottle is filled with the water. Special hoses are usually included with the testing bottles. As with radon canisters and well water samples, you want to make sure that you deal with a licensed laboratory for radon water analysis. The radon reading accuracy will depend on the sophistication of the lab's analyzing equipment. So check the lab out and make sure that they know what they're doing.
If the water is found to have a high radon gas reading, then there are a number of options to take for mitigation treatments. One is to have an activated carbon treatment installed. This is simply a charcoal filter system installed on the water supply lines. The drawback to this type of mitigation is that the charcoal that's left over is going to be slightly radioactive. This used charcoal can be considered a hazardous and toxic waste material. This could lead to problems with disposing of it. Another method of mitigation is a system to aerate the water to release the radon gas before it enters the house.
As a home inspector I wonder sometimes what my exposure is to asbestos fibers and radon. But I guess there's risk in everything, even crossing the street, so I don't worry about it. If it bothers you, just talk to your physician or an asbestos and radon lab for their advice.