by Lucy Flood
In February of 2007, Doug Arnell’s doctor called him into her office in the middle of a Wyoming snowstorm. The previous night, he had coughed so hard he passed out, and he had a black eye from where he hit the floor. After taking X-rays, the doctor instructed him to drive to the University of Utah immediately.
In Utah, doctors drained liters of fluid from his heart sack. Then they diagnosed him with stage 4 lung cancer. He had never been a smoker, and had always enjoyed fishing, hunting, and riding horses. “He was a health nut,” says his widow, Grace.
The most likely cause of Doug’s lung cancer? Radon.
When the Arnells had their home tested, they found they had 66 pCi/L (a measure of environmental radioactivity) of radon, far above the average indoor home level of 1.3 pCi/L. This number was fourteen times higher than the EPA’s action level of 4 pCi/L, at which mitigation is recommended. Doug died of cancer the following winter at the age of 63. He had lived in the house since 1975.
Every year radon claims the lives of roughly 21,000 Americans, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., after smoking. As Grace Arnell will tell you, the scary thing about radon is you can’t see it or taste it or smell it. It’s a naturally occurring radioactive gas that forms when uranium in soils, rocks, and water decays, and it can easily seep undetected into your home.
Homes on both sides of the Tetons have historically high radon levels. The EPA’s radon maps show Teton County, Wyoming, as a red zone, meaning that it has a predicted average indoor screening of above 4 pCi/L. Idaho state radon officer James Faust says that of the 190 homes tested with a Driggs zip code, 73 percent have come back with readings of 4 pCi/L or higher. Of those, the highest reading came back at 1,104 pCi/L, or 276 times the EPA’s action levels, and fifteen times more than the level in the Arnells’ home. “We have some real problems in Teton County, Idaho,” Faust says.
Even if your neighbor’s home is radon free, you still need to test. A home with normal radon levels can be sitting next door to one with dangerously high levels. Also, as homes become more energy efficient and airtight, radon is trapped inside. The good news is testing is easy, and most home radon levels can be reduced to 2 pCi/L or below with mitigation. If you are buying a home, insist on a radon test before making a bid.
Guidelines for Radon testing:
Test in the winter, when your home is closed up and radon levels are typically highest.
Purchasing radon test kits:
You can buy test kits at your local hardware store or online. Normally, test kits go for $15 or more. Wyoming’s Radon Program (radon.com/sub/wy/) offers two Air Chek test kits for $6.95, and Idaho’s program offers one for $5.95, including shipping and handling (radon.com/sub/id/idaho-ftko.html).
How to test:
Radon generally collects in the highest quantities on the bottom floor; so if you have a basement, test there. Otherwise, test in a first-floor living space where you spend significant time, such as a bedroom, playroom, or living room, and not in a kitchen or bathroom.
When using short-term test kits, keep your windows and doors shut for twelve hours before testing. Place the kit twenty inches or more above the floor where it won’t be disturbed by drafts, direct sunlight, high heat, or high humidity, and away from exterior walls. While testing, leave doors closed, except for normal entering and exiting.
After you’ve finished testing, mail your kit to the specified lab. It shouldn’t take more than two weeks to get your test results. If you prefer, you can hire a qualified radon tester to test for you. Find one at radongas.org or nrsb.org.
Interpreting your test:
The EPA advises that if your first short-term test results come back at 4 pCi/L or higher that you do a second test, which can either be a short-term or a long-term test. If the second test comes back 4 pCi/L or higher, the EPA recommends mitigation.
Mitigation:Depending on your home’s size and configuration, Melia says mitigation costs can range from $1,200 for a home without a basement to $2,400 or more for a home with a basement and a crawl space. He recommends avoiding contractors who want to skimp on building codes, and to get bids from at least three radon contractors.A variety of mitigation techniques can be used. The most common is a vent pipe system and fan that pulls radon from beneath the home and vents it to the outside.Melia says to look for a radon contractor who is either certified by the National Environmental Health Association National Radon Proficiency Program (NEHA-NRPP) or National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). Some locals with these credentials include:Dave McCann | D & K Residential Service | 307.690.4721Andrew Judge and Ilya RosikhimFull House Radon Service| 307.690.2469Randy Vivier | All American Home Inspection | 307.883.1378
Stephen Adams | Atomic Enviro Survey | 307.677.2019
For additional info contact your State Radon Coordinators:
James Faust | ID | 800.445.8647
Steve Melia | WY | 307.777.6015
Insider’s Tip: Steve Melia, Wyoming’s Radon Coordinator, suggests using two short-term test kits simultaneously, placing them no more than four inches apart. “The two kits will test the level of radon, but they also test against each other,” Melia says. That will save you time involved in buying, testing, and mailing in a second test kit, should your first test come back high.
Zone 1: means that any given home has a high potential to have a radon level at or above 4 pCi/l.
Zone 2: indicates potential for levels between 2 and 4 pCi/l.
Zone 3: indicates the potential for below 2 pCi/L.
Note: High levels can be found in all zones.
Lucy Flood is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, InsideClimate News,The Jackson Hole News and Guide, and elsewhere. She was a 2010–2011 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism.