Take action to remove radon from your home

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published January 16, 2019

METRO DETROIT — It may be impossible to smell or see, but that doesn’t mean radon won’t do a lot of damage.

Formed during the breakdown of uranium, radon is a chemically inert radioactive gas found in nearly all soils and rocks. Radon can seep into homes through gaps or cracks in the foundation floor or walls, sump pits, drains or other openings in a home. Once it gets inside an enclosed home, it can accumulate to unhealthy levels. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States behind smoking, and those who smoke and live in a home with an elevated level of radon are at an even higher risk of cancer.

About 21,000 people die each year from radon-induced lung cancer, said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for advocacy and public policy with the American Lung Association.

“This is a very preventable cause,” he said. “Fixing those homes, that can prevent a lot of those lung cancers.”

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 29 percent of homes tested in Oakland County had radon levels equal to or above the threshold of 4 picocuries per liter, written as pCi/L. Eleven percent of homes tested in Macomb County had those levels, as did 17 percent of homes tested in Wayne County.

“Radon’s a bigger issue than most people think. We have elevated levels in every county. Some counties have a higher level of tests come back elevated,” said Aaron Berndt, radon specialist at the MDEQ. “It can be a fairly localized issue where a neighbor may not have an issue, but it doesn’t mean you don’t.”

Berndt said that there are really no safe levels of radon in a home, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that above 4 picocuries per liter of air is where there is a concern with elevated levels.

“There’s really no safe level, but even with mitigation, you’re never going to get to no radon,” he said.

In the winter, warm air rises and escapes through higher levels of a house. To maintain its pressure, the house then needs to draw in more air, which Stewart explained tends to happen on the lower levels of the home.

“That suction also applies to any part of the foundation. If there are cracks, openings, floor joints, even seams that look solid — like cinder block walls — they’re not really solid,” Stewart said. “The house will then draw soil gas through all those kinds of openings.”

Underground soil gases, however, contain radon formed when uranium in the soil and rocks naturally decays. When the house draws in the radon-contaminated soil gases, they can build to unhealthy levels in the home.

Mitigation systems work by creating a pit in the area under a house’s foundation and installing a pipe into the air space. The pipe is then run to the exterior of the house and up above the roofline. A low-power fan runs to remove the radon gas from the area around the home’s foundation, stopping it from entering the home and venting it outside.

“Instead of the house sucking on the soil now, with this fan system installed, it now makes the soil gas pressure under the slab lower than inside the house above it. A good mitigation system will try to seal up obvious entry points, (but) now the system will work so that soil gas will not want to come into the house,” Stewart said. “This is the most common way to solve a radon problem.”

The state recommends testing a home every two years, because as homes settle, new cracks form in the foundation and radon levels can change.

According to the EPA, mitigation can reduce levels to 4 pCi/L or less 95 percent of the time.

The only way to discover the radon level in a structure for sure is to test a home with a do-it-yourself kit available at most hardware and home improvement stores. The kit is also available for free for residents from the Macomb County and Wayne County health departments, and costs $5 for residents during the month of January from the Oakland County Health Department.

The free kits in Macomb County are part of January’s National Radon Action Month, said Andrew Cox, division director of environmental health in Macomb County.

“It’s just a part of that initiative to not only bring awareness, but to help Macomb County stay healthy,” he said. “A lot of people talk about carbon monoxide, but not many people talk about radon, and it’s just as deadly.”

The testing unit must be hung for a minimum of three days, up to seven days, in the lowest livable area at least 3 feet away from an opening to the outside. The test must be used when the home is closed from the outdoors, and then the unit is sent to a laboratory, which will then contact the homeowner with the results.

If a test is performed and comes back positive for elevated radon levels, Berndt said that the MDEQ recommends performing a second test.

“Once you confirm that elevated level, then we can talk about fixing the home and hiring a certified professional to come in and install a mitigation system,” he said. “It’s no different than any other type of radiation. You want to reduce your exposure as much as possible.”

Reducing radon levels close to the levels outdoors is a relatively straightforward process, Stewart said. He said that mitigators should be certified by one of two national certifying bodies: the National Radon Proficiency Program or the National Radon Safety Board.

For more information, visit michigan.gov/radon.

In Macomb County, free test kits are available for residents at the Central Health Center, 43525 Elizabeth Road in Mount Clemens, or the Southwest Health Center, 27690 Van Dyke Ave. in Warren.

In Oakland County, test kits are available for $5 for residents in January or $10 the remainder of the year at the North Oakland Health Center, 1200 N. Telegraph Road, Building 34 East in Pontiac, or the South Oakland Health Center, 27725 Greenfield Road in Southfield.

In Wayne County, free test kits are available for residents at the Health Administration Building, East Wing Environmental Health, 33030 Van Born Road in Wayne.