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Take simple steps to effectively reduce radon health risks     Send a link to a friend

[OCT. 8, 2004]  URBANA -- Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, is believed to be the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Experts have developed radon reduction systems that can reduce the radon in indoor environments to acceptable levels. The bad news is that many people fail to install these systems properly.

"It's estimated that about half of the radon reduction systems in Illinois are installed incorrectly," said Ted Funk, an Extension specialist in the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "There are guidelines, but people aren't as careful as they should be and they don't follow the rules."

Funk believes that some people don't understand what it takes to install a system properly but most simply don't take the problem seriously.

"They just want to put something in and say they've got a radon reduction system," he said. "So not only do they ignore the rules, they don't lower the level of radon. It's ironic that they go to all that trouble and expense and then not get the job done."

Radon gas is produced from the natural breakdown of uranium that's found in rocks and soils across the United States. As radon decays, it emits subatomic particles.

Radon enters a home when the indoor air pressure is lower than the outdoor air pressure. The house creates a vacuum, sucking radon gas inside. Sump pumps, crawl spaces and openings where the floor and wall meet are common radon entry points.

When we breathe radon gas, decaying radon atoms emit alpha particles that rip like tiny bullets through lung cells. Scientists believe the particles can alter cell nuclei, which increases our risk of lung cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that radon causes 14,000 to 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually.

Because it can take anywhere from five to 25 years for this cancer to develop, many experts refer to radon as a "kill slow" health risk, Funk said. Exposure to radon has no immediate symptoms.

"We expose ourselves to a lot of things that are in the 'kill slow' mode, but they just don't get our attention," he said. "Radon should."

Homeowners can test for radon themselves, using kits that can be purchased at most hardware stores. If you find that the radon level in your home exceeds the level considered acceptable by government standards, the EPA can provide you with the names and addresses of professionals who are trained to reduce radon concentrations.

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And if you are building a home, Funk strongly advises installing a passive radon reduction system. "For new construction, it's only $600 to $1,000 extra cost," he said. "That's not very much when you're looking at the whole package. It's more difficult, and much more expensive, to do it after the fact."

A passive radon system uses construction techniques that are familiar to any reputable contractor. In a crawl space, a layer of clean gravel topped by polyethylene sheeting is placed beneath the flooring system. A gas-tight venting pipe runs from the gravel level through the building to the roof. Then the foundation is sealed and caulked thoroughly. This system exploits the vacuum effect by creating a pressure barrier to radon entry and a short-circuit path to the outdoors.

Funk also suggests installing an electrical junction box in the attic at the time of construction. That way, if the passive system is not sufficient, a specially designed electric venting fan can be installed later to pull the gas into the vent pipe, where it can be exhausted outside the house. The fan must be installed by a licensed radon mitigation professional.

However you choose to reduce radon in your home, Funk strongly encourages contractors and do-it-yourselfers alike to make sure the system they choose is installed correctly.

"It's one thing to not even attempt radon reduction," he said. "It's another thing to attempt it and fail because you didn't follow some relatively simple rules. Go to the Extension radon website, get the guidelines and do it right."

The Extensionís radon website is http://www.TakeActionOnRadon.uiuc.edu.

[University of Illinois news release]

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