Protect your home and family from deadly radon

Radon kills thousands of people every year, and Colorado homes are particularly vulnerable to this deadly gas. Here’s how to protect yourself and your family from this killer.

By Maria Cote

A creepy basement is the stuff of great horror flicks. On film, all manner of evil lurks in that space, from gruesome monsters to ghostly specters. But experts in Boulder and across the state will tell you the real danger in that basement isn’t shaped like a fanged beast, nor does it go bump in the night. In fact, you can’t hear it, see it, touch it or even smell it.

It’s an odorless radioactive gas called radon, and the EPA says it kills thousands of people every year. In fact, according to a 2003 EPA study, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, killing an estimated 21,000 people a year.

Faye Dugan tested her Castle Rock home for radon shortly after lung cancer took her husband’s life in April of 2009. “I had never heard of radon, but my neighbor mentioned it to me, so I had the house tested,” Dugan says. “My average was a 10, and I had spikes of 20 on several occasions.” Her husband had spent a lot of time in the basement, and her teenage son still did, so she quickly put in a radon-mitigation system.

“I’m convinced I’d still have my husband if it weren’t for the high level of radon in our home,” she says. That reading of 10—6 picocuries per liter of air above the EPA Action Level—is not an unusual finding in Colorado, says Patty Dooley-Strappelli, an environmental health specialist with Boulder County Public Health. “There are places in Boulder County that have some of the highest readings in the country,” she says.

Radon comes from uranium, which is more prevalent in the granitic rocks that help give Colorado its majestic mountain ranges. Most of Colorado is in Zone 1 of the three zones developed by the EPA, making it a state with the highest indoor radon potential. Based on EPA data, areas across the United States have been mapped out as Zone 3, having low radon potential; Zone 2, moderate potential; or Zone 1, high potential. The EPA uses several factors to determine radon potential, including geology and soil permeability. Colorado is in Zone 1 partly because the state contains so much granite.

The EPA recommends a homeowner install a radon-mitigation system if their home’s radon level is 4 picocuries per liter, or pCi/L, or higher. The average indoor radon level is 1.3 pCi/L in the United States, according to the EPA.


 Routing Radon

teacher_donDon Humphrey, lead mitigation and field technician with Broomfield-based RDS Environmental (www.rdsenvironmental.com), says his company mainly uses the three methods listed below to rid homes of radon. To ensure the job is done correctly, Humphrey advises people to work with a radon-mitigation installer certified by the National Environmental Health Association.

  • In a sub-slab depressurization system—the most common type of mitigation—a professional puts a core in the concrete floor, digs out an air pocket or chamber, and pipes radon gas from the hole to the exterior. This pulls a negative pressure from under a concrete slab..
  • A sub-membrane depressurization system comes into play for those with a full crawl space (no basement). It consists of encapsulating all exposed dirt with a sealed plastic membrane, then running piping from under the plastic to the outside. This pulls a negative pressure from under that membrane, capturing and exhausting the radon before it has a chance to enter the living space.
  • A hollow-block-wall depressurization comes into play when the structure’s foundation is built with hollow blocks or cinder blocks. The top of the wall is capped or sealed, pulling suction points, or negative pressure, directly from the voids in the wall.

-M.C


“Just to give you an idea, 4 pico­curies per liter of air is about eight or nine atoms of radon decaying every minute in every liter of air in the house,” Dooley-Strappelli says.

If the measurement with the peculiar name—picocurie—has piqued your curiosity, the root of the word unravels its meaning. Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, was a physicist and chemist known for her radioactivity studies. She ultimately died from lifelong exposure to radiation, but no doubt would be a proponent of testing nearly every house for radon.

Any house that’s grounded on the soil should be tested, Dooley-Strappelli says. So unless your house is on stilts, test, the pros say. “One thing we’re trying not to do is scare people,” she adds. “Say you want to buy a house, but discover it has a high reading. It’s so inexpensive to get it taken care of, and radon mitigation, when done correctly, really works.”

Don Humphrey, lead mitigation and field technician with Broomfield-based RDS Environmental, says the cost of mitigation is usually between $850 and $1,200. “Sealing a basement doesn’t work, though a lot of people try that quick fix,” Humphrey says. “You need a vacuum, whether it be a passive or active system, to get the radon up and out.”

And make no mistake, experts say: If you have a high basement reading, avoiding that space won’t take care of the problem, because radon makes its way into every room in the house. The EPA suggests testing every room from the third floor down for radon.

Ironically, says Dooley-Strappelli, the more energy-efficient and airtight the house is, the bigger the radon problem may be. That’s why it made sense for Boulder County Public Health to partner with EnergySmart, a program that offers energy-efficiency advice.

“Through the partnership, we’ve provided hundreds of radon test kits,” Dooley-Strappelli says. “We also host programs to teach people how to reduce radon levels.” Testing for radon is inexpensive, whether you have a professional do it, or purchase a test kit.

Most homeowners opt first for a short-term test, Humphrey says, that measures radon levels over a period of time. Everything from charcoal canisters to continuous monitors and electorate ion chambers (where an electrostatics charged disk detector, or electorate, measures radon within an ion chamber) will give you an accurate reading over a span of a few days or a couple of months. An instant reading isn’t possible, as radon levels can jump, even from a low of 3 to a high of 30, in the span of an hour, Humphrey says.

A longer-term test will measure a home’s radon from one season to the next, and will give you a “big picture” reading of the entire house. In Colorado, around half of the homes test above the EPA’s suggested level of 4 or below, experts say. “To the people who say they’ll take their chances, I like to say it’s like a dartboard,” Humphrey says. “If you hit a 2, your chances are lower. The higher that number, the greater your risk of lung cancer.”

Dennis Richards and his wife called on RDS Environmental when they learned their Boulder home had a radon reading of around 7. “The hardest part for us was clearing out the clutter in the basement to let them do the (mitigation) job,” Richards says with a laugh. “The testing was an easy, quick process.”

Richards and his wife are both cancer survivors. “We’re probably more sensitive to the radon issue than most people,” he notes. “But it’s something people should really consider when they’re in the market for buying a house. There’s disclosure about lead paint, and in the future, I believe radon should be disclosed as well. It’s incredibly important that we start talking about it.”

And it’s heartbreaking, Humphrey says, when his company is asked to install mitigation systems in homes where a family has lost a loved one to lung cancer.

It’s also senseless, adds Dugan, who is a member of CanSAR, which stands for Cancer Survivors Against Radon. “It costs less than $50 to test your house,” says Dugan, who says CanSAR tries to prevent radon-inducing lung cancer through education and awareness. “If you smelled gas in your house, wouldn’t you do something about it? People know all about what carbon monoxide can do to you. So why are people not taking this seriously?”


Radon Resources

Check the websites below for more information on radon in Colorado.

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The Community Spirit

Living at Marpa House, whether for a short or multi year stay, entails participating in cooking, cleaning and household maintenance. Residents must also downsize into a single room and practice Buddhist meditation or a related spiritual discipline. A primary draw is the focus on spiritual practice and simplicity.

“Marpa House allows you to pool your resources with other people to have a wholesome lifestyle without an emphasis on material goods,” says Tsultim Datso, a 60-year-old resident and head of meditation practice and education. “You have instant community and connectedness with others who share your values, and the freedom to spend time on things you care about.”

Datso, who has lived at Marpa House on and off for the past three years, previously lived in a shared house that she owned, sharing expenses with several others who were all interested in spirituality.

Serviceable Solutions

Beacon Hill Village is a member-driven organization for Boston residents 50 and older that provides programs and services to help boomers lead active lives while remaining in their own homes. The concept originated in the Boston suburb of Beacon Hill Village, where the 10-year-old, 400-member organization thrives.

Members pay an annual fee and call a “concierge” number for information about discounted providers and volunteers who offer driving, housecleaning and other services, and help them manage their households and stay active and healthy. The concierge coordinates vetted providers, from dog walkers and plumbers to acupuncturists and painters, and also schedules social and cultural programs, travel, films, singles’ events, lunch groups and cocktail parties. More than 60 similar organizations have cropped up in the U.S. in the last 10 years, although not in Boulder County.

AARP editor Moody would like to see elements of Beacon Hill Village replicated in Boulder County—for instance, using the local cohousing common houses as venues for social events, medical screenings and other activities for the surrounding neighborhoods.

If any boomer-housing model appeals to you, consider hosting a Meetup group (Google “Meetup groups Boulder” for info) to find like-minded individuals. Or, as Leach puts it, “very active people looking for their next adventures in life.”

“Instead of being isolated,” he says, “in a community you have plenty of opportunities to connect with neighbors and make your life better and more interesting.”


Neshama Abraham covers topics related to social and environmental sustainability, and is a founding 15-year resident of the Nomad Cohousing Community in Boulder.