As harsh northern winds howl from Maine to New Mexico, Americans seek shelter indoors for longer hours than at any other time of the year. In many homes, the underground basement provides the perfect cave to hibernate through the long, dark winter months. It’s this natural tendency to stay indoors and even underground at this time of the year that has led the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare every January as National Radon Action Month. Radon, a naturally occurring gas, seeps from the soil into our homes and leaky, drafty basements are especially vulnerable. After cigarette smoking, radon exposure is the #2 cause of lung cancer.
According to EPA estimates, 21,000 Americans die every year from lung cancer caused by radon exposure. Smokers are at heightened risk of developing lung cancer when radon exposure is also present but an estimated 2,900 people who’ve never smoked die from radon-related lung cancer each year. Radon testing in the Madison, Wisconsin, area during 2007 revealed radon levels above recommended guidelines in two-thirds of the homes tested by the Environmental Health Division of Public Health in Madison and Dane Counties.
Many county public health agencies across the nation carry radon testing kits and many hardware stores carry them at prices ranging from $5 to $15 each. Both the EPA and the US Surgeon General recommend testing the most lived-in area of the home, where the family typically spends most of its time.
Homes that test positive for radon exposure will need to have all holes patched and cracks and leaks repaired to prevent access to radon coming from the soil. In many cases, a locally licensed contractor will be required to eliminate exposure but any expense incurred to do so is a dramatic bargain when compared to the risk of developing lung cancer.
Radon gas is a natural byproduct of various elements of the earth. There is no way to prevent its formation. It forms when water, rock, and any naturally occurring uranium in the soil decompose over time. Once converted to radon, the gas can seep into a home via sumps, cracks, holes, and any other opening in a basement’s walls or floors.