My nine-year-old daughter has been smoking about 30 cigarettes a day since she was born. My two-year-old daughter has been exposed to at least 2,000 chest X-rays. And my two sons, five and seven, have been playing baseball outside a nuclear power plant with a leaking core reactor. You’re thinking I’m either an unfit mother or a ranting loon.
Have you ever heard of radon? It’s a colorless, odorless, invisible form of cancer-causing radiation. Radon occurs naturally in the soil, from decaying uranium. It moves into your home through foundation cracks and holes and the water supply. Almost every American home has some level of radon, and levels can vary widely in any given neighborhood.
The good news is that a radon professional can install a radon mitigation system to bring the radon to an acceptable level.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the US nearly one in 15 homes has radon levels higher than the action level of 4pCi/l. (The action level is the government’s general accepted level of radon, a level that can realistically be attained without excessive effort.) Each pCi/l has been compared to each family member smoking two cigarettes a day. So an accepted level of 4pCi/l is the equivalent of smoking eight cigarettes a day.)
My kids don’t really smoke and play in nuclear waste. But we did find out recently how high are home’s radon level was. Yikes.
When Dana Reeve, wife of actor Christopher Reeve, died of lung cancer in March, I started thinking about the newscasters’ comments: “She didn’t even smoke!” I found out that although about 80 percent (about 160,000 annually) of US lung cancer deaths are attributed to smoking, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that another 12 percent (about 21,000) are attributed to radon exposure. (That’s almost twice as many as caused by drunk driving, according to the National Safety Council.) Only about 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year are attributed to second-hand smoke.
That’s not to say that Dana Reeve’s home had high radon levels. I have no idea. But it did make me think about things that we can control. I can control whether I smoke. (I don’t.) For now I can control my kids’ exposure to second-hand smoke. And luckily, I can control, to a degree, the radon levels in my home.
So after several years of dragging our feet on testing our radon levels, my husband and I finally called Festa Radon Technologies Co., a Pennsylvania state-licensed radon testing and correction firm. They did a simple, non-invasive test (about $75) that monitored our home’s radon levels over a 48-hour period. They sent the test to an independent lab. (You can also get self-tests for about $25 at home improvement stores.)
What we found unnerved us. Our levels were 14.8. That’s the equivalent of each of us smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day.
As I said, all of us are nonsmokers. Three of my kids and I are vegetarians because I don’t like the amount of adulterants that go into our nation’s meat supply. I buy organic foods whenever possible. We try to eat healthy and exercise. To hear that we were being exposed to this level of radiation gave me instant chest pains.
Reducing radon levels isn’t difficult. Festa Radon made sure our existing system was properly installed. Then they installed a larger radon fan outside and made a bigger space under the basement floor where the pipe enters the dirt. It reduced the levels by a point or two but we wanted lower readings. It was possible that the pipe was entering the ground at a radon “hot-spot”.
The next step was to move the radon pipe to a different point in the basement floor, where they thought the ground wouldn’t be as tightly compacted. Bingo! The next readings averaged about 1.4.
Don’t assume your existing radon system is working. Radon levels usually cannot be reduced by sealing cracks. Work should be done by a state licensed professional. The cost for fixing the average house ranges from $800 to about $2,500.
For more information on radon, go to www.epa.gov/radon or www.state.pa.us keyword: DEP Radon, or write the Bureau of Radiation Protection, Dept. of Environmental Protection, PO Box 8469, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8469. Check for a similar department in your home state.
By Jennifer Kissel