Radon: Is It In My Home?


Cracks inside the walls and floors of your home can allow radioactive radon gas to creep inside and affect your air quality and health.

Radon – an odorless, colorless, naturally occurring radioactive gas – is inhaled into the lungs, where it can damage the DNA, potentially increasing cancer risk, says Douglas Arenberg, MD, associate professor of medicine in the pulmonary and critical care department at the University of Michigan Health System.

Exposure to radon gas, which can seep through cracks in the walls and floors of your home, increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

In the United States, an estimated 21,000 people die from radon-related lung cancer every year (compared with 160,000 lung cancer deaths from smoking), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, and it’s the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, adds the EPA. And people who smoke or used to smoke have an even greater chance of developing lung cancer if they are exposed to radon.

“Lung cancer risk from radon exposure occurs over many years of high-level exposure,” Dr. Arenberg says.

Radon: The Home Invader

Radon forms when uranium in water, rocks, and soil begins to break down, releasing radon gas into the dirt beneath your home. Radon can enter your home through:

-Cracks in foundation walls and floors
-Gaps in flooring
-Warm air rising indoors
-Spaces around pipes entering the foundation
-Wind blowing outdoors
-Fireplaces and furnaces
-Open areas inside the walls
-Exterior air vents
-Water – usually well water
-Construction joints – where concrete stops and starts again

Radon is a common problem in homes throughout the country – as many as one in 15 U.S. homes has high levels of radon, according to the EPA.  Newer homes may also have higher levels of radon due to better porosity in soil around the house, which can make it easier for radon gas to flow in.

But elevated levels of radon can be found in any state and in any home. Often, next-door neighbors can have vastly different radon readings – one safe and the other not.

Home Testing for Radon

An at-home kit (available at most hardware stores) that is labeled as “Meets EPA Requirements” can be used to test for radon in your home. You can start with short-term (usually two-day) radon testing with a home kit; the sample you collect is sent for analysis, with results mailed to you within a few weeks.

“It is important to note that for people who do not spend any time in their basement, it may not necessary to measure your radon level in the basement,” Arenberg says. “Radon is not a problem on upper levels of houses, given the airflow which naturally reduces exposure to radon. I recommend people check the levels only if they have a finished basement or otherwise spend a lot of time in their basement.”

Reducing Radon Levels

If the radon levels in your home exceed the 4 pCi/L level, you should take steps to reduce the radon level as soon as possible.

Over time, radon will disappear due to radioactive decay. But, “anyone with elevated radon levels should take the time, and spend the money, to get the problem fixed,” Arenberg says. He stresses that you should not panic if you do have high levels of radon in your basement because “it’s very easy to remedy this.”

You can install a removal system that allows radon gas from beneath the home to be immediately vented outside. Radon removal can eliminate up to 99 percent of radon from the home, according to the EPA. These devices, called soil-suction radon reduction systems, should always be installed and supervised by a certified radon mitigation specialist or radon remediation service.

Radon is a common problem with serious potential side effects, and that’s why it’s a good idea for everyone to consider home testing for radon so any potential issues can be resolved. Knowing the air quality of your home can give you peace of mind and leave you breathing a little easier.