You may have heard people talk about radon gas, but it’s very possible that you don’t know exactly what it is.
According to the Arkansas Department of Health, radon is a radioactive gas that occurs in nature. It forms in the ground from the natural breakdown of uranium and other metals, and it’s found in most soil, rocks, and even groundwater.
It has no color, odor, or taste. That makes it very difficult for people to know if it’s around.
And it IS around, to one degree or another, in Arkansas and everywhere.
Since radon is a gas, it pretty much moves where it wants to.
It’s not a big concern in outdoor air because it becomes diluted in wide-open spaces. But inside a home or other building, there is a danger that it can accumulate.
Radon moves through the ground, and it can enter a home through cracks or gaps in the home’s foundation and flooring. Since a home is an enclosed space, the gas can become trapped there and slowly build up.
The concern with radon is that it can cause cancer. The CDC says that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, resulting in an estimated 21,000 deaths each year.
If a person spends long periods of time in a home with high radon levels, the risk for lung cancer grows.
The CDC also reports an estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency that about one in every 15 homes in the United States has high radon levels.
Geography and Radon
While radon is found everywhere, some parts of the country are more prone to having high levels.
In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency released a Map of Radon Zones. It was created to identify areas where levels may potentially be elevated. The EPA says the map was developed using factors like geology, building foundation types, and existing data on indoor measurements of radon in the area.
Radon in the air is measured in picocuries per liter of air (or pCi/L).
There are three zones on the map, with Zone 1 (in red) being the area projected to have the greatest potential for high levels.
Zone 1 is estimated to average radon levels greater than 4 picocuries per liter indoors. This is the level at which the EPA recommends action be taken to reduce radon gas in the air.
Zone 2 (in orange) is suggested to have moderate potential for elevated levels, with indoor readings between 2-4 pCi/L projected to be common. At these levels, the EPA suggests people consider taking action to reduce the radon level.
Zone 3 (yellow) is estimated to have the lowest potential for dangerous levels, with an average of less than 2 pCi/L estimated.
Benton County is shown in Zone 2 on the map, along with several other counties in northern Arkansas and northeastern Oklahoma. Washington County is shown in Zone 3.
The EPA states, “The Map of Radon Zones should not be used to determine if individual homes need to be tested.” The map only estimates what the radon levels may be.
The EPA encourages people everywhere to have their homes tested because radon can vary from house to house within the same neighborhood and certainly within each zone. Homes with elevated levels have been found in all three zones.
A Brief History of Radon
The potential dangers of radon gas did not become a public health concern until the 1980s.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Health, an incident at a nuclear power plant under construction helped fuel the concern.
Stanley Watras, a worker at the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant in eastern Pennsylvania, attracted attention by setting off a radiation detector at the plant multiple times. Since the plant was not yet operational, it created great curiosity about what could be causing the high radiation levels.
The worker’s home was eventually tested for radon, and the levels were measured at more than 2,500 pCi/L – hundreds of times the level where action is recommended today. Rocks containing uranium were discovered under his house, and they created radon which entered his home.
Two years later, this led the EPA to recommend mitigation efforts for any home with radon levels above 4 pCi/L.
Earlier studies had shown that radon was a concern for workers in mines, who had often suffered health problems, but now it was becoming evident that radon could affect people in their homes anywhere.
Testing: DIY vs. Professional
Now that we know more about radon, it’s easy to have your home tested.
When deciding on a test, you’re faced with the decision of doing it yourself or hiring a professional.
Radon testing kits can be purchased at many big-box retailers or bought online. They are typically much cheaper than hiring a professional, but there are risks and disadvantages to using them.
A testing kit is considered a passive testing device, meaning it doesn’t require electricity. There are a few types of passive devices including charcoal or alpha track.
In each case of these passive devices, they are exposed to the air for a specified period of time, usually at least two days. Once the test is complete, it must then be shipped to a lab for results. It takes several days to receive them.
A risk with doing it yourself is that it’s easy to invalidate the results. There are specific directions for conducting the test, such as the placement of the test and the conditions. For example, if you open a window or accidentally turn on a fan, the results can be inaccurate.
A professional will more likely use an active test, meaning one that requires electricity. A monitoring device will be set up and data will be taken for a designated time period. Once the time is complete, the radon levels will be easy to read.
The biggest negative with a professional test is it’s more expensive, but a positive is the faster turn-around time in getting results. The professional also has the training and experience to set up the equipment correctly and ensure the conditions are right, so the results are more likely to be accurate.
Reducing Radon Levels
If a home is determined to have elevated radon levels, you don’t have to abandon it. You need to find a qualified radon mitigation contractor to fix it.
The EPA recommends getting estimates from more than one provider and asking for references, just as you might do with any other home repair project.
Some of the procedures used to reduce radon include:
✅ Soil Suction – A technique where pipes are used to draw radon gas from suction points under a home and direct it to the air above ground. Depending on the size of the home and its particular case, there might be one suction point or there could be several. (There are many variations of this technique, depending on the foundation of the home and other factors.)
✅ House Pressurization – In this technique, a fan is used to blow air onto the lowest level indoors. Its goal is to create enough air pressure to keep radon from entering the house.
✅ Sealing – This common-sense technique is designed to be applied to cracks or gaps in the foundation to block entry points for radon. According to the EPA, sealing by itself has not been shown to reduce radon gas effectively. When used with other techniques, however, it can make them more effective.
The EPA offers a Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction that explains more about these techniques and how your home can be fixed if it’s experiencing high levels of radon gas.
Learn more about having a Radon Test done by Alpha & Omega Inspections.
“I’m buying a new home. It was inspected by code officials, so I don’t need a home inspection.”
I hear this all the time.
It’s perfectly natural to think that if you’re buying a house that’s just been built, it doesn’t need an inspection. After all, it’s brand new! And if a city code official has already looked at it, what more is there to do?
In theory, that sounds great. But the job functions of a code official and a home inspector are not the same.
Yes, we look at a lot of the same things, but not necessarily in the same way.
Here are a few examples of issues I noticed in a newly constructed home on a recent inspection.
✅ Leaky Tub – There was a leak around the jet on a jetted tub. A city code official might discover the leak, but it would be highly unlikely as that’s not something they look for. They will look at the plumbing, but they will not fill up the tub, turn on the jets, and then look for leaks.
On the other hand, as a home inspector, I will fill up your bathtub to look for leaks around the faucet, around the pipes (if accessible), and I will test the jets (if applicable) to make sure they are working properly. A tub with an unknown leak could cause extensive damage and expense down the road.
✅ Cracked Tiles – I found four cracked tiles in a bathroom. There may be a code official somewhere who looks for cracked tiles, but it’s highly unlikely.
As a home inspector, damaged flooring is one of the things I look for. Although hairline cracks on a couple of tiles are mostly cosmetic, I want the buyer to be aware of them. It’s something that should be covered and can be easily fixed under the one-year Builder’s Warranty.
✅ Falling Windows – The windows in the living room, when opened, would free fall one-third to one-half of the way down from their closed positions. Again, this is not something that a code official would probably catch, as they aren’t looking for that. They would look to make sure the windows were properly installed at the time of installation.
I will test all accessible windows to ensure they operate appropriately. A falling window is a potential safety hazard, especially in a household that has children, but it’s relatively quick and easy to fix.
These are just a few issues from one house.
So, if you ask me, it doesn’t matter how new or how old a house is. If you’re looking to buy or build a new home, it’s definitely worth having a home inspection.
Nick Mauldin, Owner - Alpha & Omega Inspections