Radon, what is it?

Radon is a gas that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust. It is invisible, it is odourless, and it is tasteless. Radon is a product of the decay of uranium. When uranium decays, it turns into lead. This is a 14-step process; radon is formed at the sixth step.

From uranium you say? Turns into lead you say?

The radon gas itself isn’t the problem, but its decay products are. The radioactive decay produces particles that can attach themselves to lung tissue when radon gas is inhaled. It is primarily the alpha radiation that causes lung cancer. Like smoking, the risk is higher with greater exposure. The effect is long term rather than short term.

Where is it found?

Uranium is present in many parts of the world’s crust. Areas subject to high radon gas levels have considerable concentrations of uranium in the earth, cracks/porous soils allowing the gas to migrate up to the surface.

How does it get into homes?

Radon escaping into the air isn’t really a problem since it dissipates quickly into the atmosphere. However, radon gas can become trapped inside buildings, especially in the winter months when doors and windows are closed, and ventilation is at a minimum.

Radon comes in from the cracks in the basement floors and walls, opening around pipes and electrical services into the basement, through water supplies, and through basement floor drains. In areas with a high concentration, a building may have high radon levels and a similar building across the way may have very low levels of radon.

How do I know if it’s there?

There are several types of detectors available for testing radon levels in buildings. A charcoal canister can be used to absorb radon from the air. There are detectors that use a sensitive plastic surface. The radon will leave tracks or etchings on the plastic, which can be measured. There are filtering systems where the air is pumped through a filter. There are also grab-sample testers that allow for short term testing by simply taking an air sample. Some of the test procedures require laboratory analysis.

The identification of radon gas in a home is not part of a standard home inspection.

What if I have radon?

There are many ways to lower radon levels in homes. They include sealing holes, pressurizing basements/crawl spaces to keep gases out, adding pipes below basement floors to carry radon away. Guidance is available from Health and Welfare Canada, and Environmental Radiation Hazards Division of Canada.