Beware of radon

Odorless gas in home has dangerous impacts

There's no better feeling than fresh clean air filling the lungs. Breathe in. Breathe out. Clean fresh air. Right?

According to Wendy Rice, Colorado State University Extension Agent for La Plata County, fresh air is a fallacy, especially in the home.

A mysterious, odorless and tasteless gas has been creeping into our residential homes at an alarming rate. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is the result of the decay of uranium and slate in the soil. It is a class A carcinogen that is found all over the United States.

It can affect any type of building but the greatest exposure for radon occurs in the home where people spend the most time. Newly built or older homes, drafty or well-sealed homes or houses with or without basements, are all liable to contain radon.

"It is not anything that anyone has done," Rice said, at a discussion for radon testing at the Montezuma County Extension Office. "This is naturally occurring and is mostly because of the type of soil contained in the Rocky Mountains."

Excessive radon levels have been found in all 50 states, with Colorado seeing 50 percent of homes having radon levels over the recommended action level issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Other states with the highest levels were Wyoming, New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana and Idaho. Coastal states had the lowest levels since their soils contain sand.

It is a gradual process when radon invades a building. It slips through cracks in the foundation or walls, gaps around service pipes, through the water supply, construction joints and so on. It seeps up from the ground where uranium is breaking down. Although it escapes in all directions, a vast majority ends up in the home.

When homes are tested, anything under 4 PCI/L (picocuries per liter) are said to be minor numbers, though not safe numbers. The higher the number, the more potential the threat. Testing the home in six months to a year is ideal, to make sure the levels have not gone above the recommended number.

Rice is passionate about spreading the word for radon testing.

"There is radon in our area and the only way to know is to test," Rice said. "This is the number two cause of lung cancer deaths in the U.S. and it's a treatable threat."

Radon is responsible for at least 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year, according to the EPA estimates. It is the number-one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.

Rice said testing your home in the winter is the best time to get an accurate read for radon levels. Snow on the ground keeps radon packed down, so when it does escape to the top, it has nowhere to go but into a building. In the summer, it can at least filter into the outside air.

"This is the worst case scenario (during the winter) of radon in the home," Rice stressed.

There is no need to be afraid, panic or stress over possible radon threats around you. Although it is likely present, the lifespan of radon is only four days. The gas, once expelled from the ground, attaches itself to dust particles as it enters a building. When you inhale these particles, radon is at the end of its cycle will cause no damage once it reaches your lungs. This is probable in homes with small numbers of the gas.

Since radon is a very aggressive carcinogen, at a day old, it attacks your lung tissue when inhaled, sticks to DNA cells and multiplies. Radon has not been linked to any other illnesses except lung related instances. It also can have negative effects on those with asthma.

"I come across a lot of people who are concerned with what they are eating," Rice explained. "Pesticides on your food is dangerous and it's great they are concerned. But deaths related to radon are much higher. Everyone should know their radon number."

Rice advised that everyone test their homes. There are two ways of testing, with short-term being the most practical for determining radon levels. Short-term tests are done over a 72-hour period. They are small envelopes, open at the bottom, and are hung in the home at the lowest living level - away from drafts, doors and vents - in a room that is most frequented.

Once your home has been tested, if the radon number is 4 PCI/L or above it is advised to obtain a long-term test which is done over a six month to a year period. If the number continues to climb, mitigation is recommended.

It is highly probable that radon exists in homes around Cortez. Though it is nothing to worry over, testing is the first step to uncovering this sneaky substance.

For more information on radon visit www.epa.gov/radon. To contact Wendy Rice for testing kits or questions, call 382-6461.

rachels@cortezjournal.com