What is Radon?

Air Quality Canada
September 8, 2022
5 minutes

What Is Radon?

Many people don’t know what radon is nor why it is worrisome if present in a home’s air. Yet, it is not that uncommon. Radon is a type of naturally occurring radioactive gas. When present, it can cause lung cancer. It has no smell or colour to it, which makes it very difficult to detect. If you are unsure if it is in your home, now may be a good time to learn more about it as well as how it can impact the air quality in your home.

Is Radon Dangerous?

The short answer is yes, radon can be a dangerous substance. It is present in the atmosphere in trace amounts. When a person is outdoors, it is present but typically at very low levels. It also disperses quickly. That eliminates most risks associated with it.

However, radon exposure can also happen indoors. That includes at home, a place of business, or in a school. When it is indoors, it’s trapped and unable to disperse. In these cases, radon exposure occurs because the substance enters the home through cracks and holes in the property's foundation. If there is a risk of radon present, monitoring for it is important. It is also important to use one of several methods to reduce the risk of high levels occurring. 

When does radon cause cancer?

When a person breathes radon in over a period of time, the risk of developing health complications, including lung cancer, rises. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country. It causes the deaths of about 21,000 people each year. The only type of lung cancer that causes more deaths is that caused by smoking.

How Do You Know if Radon Is a Problem in Your Home?

The only way to know if radon is present and if there is a risk to your health is to have the area tested. This can determine the radon levels, and if you have any damage to your foundation, it is even more important to consider the investment in a radon testing process. Health Canada recommends testing for a minimum period of 3 months, as concentrations can vary on a seasonal basis. National thresholds before action is needed are set at 200 Becquerels/meter3.

How Does Radon Get Into Homes?

In most situations, the primary way for people to suffer from radon exposure is by breathing it in while they are in their homes. The radon gas gets into the home in one of several ways. The most common way is that it is released from the soil itself. It leaches into the trapped indoor air of the home usually through cracks in the foundation or the lowest areas of the building. 

In some areas, radon can also be found in high levels in water. When radon releases from groundwater, it can then enter the air. This leads to inhalation exposure. This can occur, for example, when clothing is washed, dishes are washed, or toilets are flushed within a home where radon is present in the water. 

There are other ways that a person can suffer from radon exposure. For example, it may be ingested in some cases, which typically comes from drinking water that has radon in it. 

What Can Be Done to Mitigate Risks?

The first step is always to monitor air conditions in a home on a consistent basis. This is very important in the basement level of a home. With consistent testing, it is quite possible to keep levels under control. There is no way to see this gas nor smell it, which makes it hard to notice. Also, radon exposure does not show up right away. In fact, the first symptoms may show up years later as lung cancer. 

These symptoms may include a cough that does not improve, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Some people may have chest pain or cough up blood. Fatigue and weight loss are also common.

How Can Radon Risks Be Lowered in the Home?

Aside from monitoring, it is also important to fix any source of radon present. For example, if it is in the groundwater, work with local providers to improve water conditions or use another source of water. For radon in the air, it is often important to determine where it is coming from and then eliminate that risk. That may be done, for example, by sealing the foundation. Often, that's not enough, though. It may be necessary to fix it by installing underground ventilation systems that can help to move air away from the foundation and basement. It may also be important to increase the rate of air changes within the home or building, or installing a radon mitigation system.

What Should You Do Now?

It is best to assess radon levels basement level of the home, where the risks of radon are the highest. Then, use consistent monitoring to detect any risk of radon development. If you notice cracks or damage to any of the basement walls or the foundation of the home, have them repaired and have measure concentrations in these areas. If your home has a crawl space, risks may be less if there is proper ventilation present.

It's always a good idea to consistently monitor air quality in the home as well. Even beyond radon, if your home’s air quality is poor, that can lead to numerous health risks for you. The use of air purification systems may help reduce some impurities out of the home, though not all systems are effective at removing radon.

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