A 'Picture' of the Invisible Radon

by Karla Allen on 2017-06-21 9:03am



Image credit: cgi.radon.com/sub/mi/

What is radon?

As Michigan builders likely know, radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive chemical element that occurs naturally in soils and rock during the decay of uranium. Generally, when this process happens in the surface soil, the gas is harmlessly released into the atmosphere where it dissipates. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which monitors radon on a federal level, “nearly all soils contain some naturally occurring uranium.” In other words, as Michigan builders know, radon can be everywhere.

So why does radon matter?

Radon created in an open area happily dissipates and generally will not cause human health problems. However, when radon penetrates structures where it can’t escape, such as a basement, it can start to cause harm to humans. (Radon also lives in harmful quantities in naturally enclosed areas, such as mines, but for Michigan contractors, we will stay focused on manmade structures.)

Along with mold, with which homeowners are likely more familiar, radon is high on the radar screen of contractors who are looking to improve air quality in their construction, and thereby increase the quality of life for homeowners.

In talking to homeowners about this issue, contractors can point out the significant differences between mold and radon, the most obvious being the visibility of mold. Radon is never visible.

Another difference is in the time it takes to start feeling the ill effects of radon. With mold, homeowners may start having reactions to its presence right away. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually may be attributed to radon exposure, which takes a lot longer to manifest. The ALA also claims that radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in America (after smoking, of course, but smokers who are also exposed to radon have an even higher risk of lung cancer). A homeowner is going to feel the effects of mold sickness much sooner than lung cancer.

A final difference is that mold is generally found in existing structures, and not usually in new construction, unless construction best practices have been abandoned entirely. Radon exists in both new and existing construction.

How does a Michigan contractor determine if an existing house has elevated levels of radon?

Image credit: lowes.com

Per the EPA, testing the air in a structure is the only way to accurately gauge radon levels. Fortunately this can be done inexpensively using a radon test kit. Radon test kits are readily available online, in hardware stores, or other retail venues in a variety of prices. Michigan contractors and homeowners may also pick one up from county and city health departments on the list Where Can I Get a Radon Test Kit. Some of these jurisdictions offer a discount on these kits during January which is National Radon Action Month. Short term kits are also available for $9.95 from www.mi.radon.com.

If instruction is lacking, Youtube videos provide youtube-level instruction for homeowners or a Michigan contractor who will perform the test. Depending on initial test results, and the EPA recommends starting with two short-term tests, a long-term test may be required. According to the EPA, the home should be fixed when the radon level is 4 pCi/L or more.

Make a note: radon is not consistently produced everywhere that it is produced. That means that in one suburban neighborhood, for example, relying on the results of a neighbor’s radon test to determine radon levels for the whole neighborhood is not a wise choice. It is advised that each home, even on the same street, should be tested individually, as houses next door to each other may generate completely opposite results based upon geological and/or construction differences.

How do Michigan builders address radon in new construction?

radon system.jpg

Image credit: epa.gov

The simple answer is radon-resistant construction. Radon-resistant construction is, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, “Easy and Inexpensive!”

For a quick overview of this construction technique, see the Michigan DEQ’s four simple steps below, each step of which Michigan builders should already be familiar with.

  1. Gas Permeable Layer - Install a layer of clean gravel or aggregate beneath the slab or flooring system to allow soil gases to move freely beneath the home.

  2. Impermeable Layer - Cover that layer with a vapor barrier (plastic or polyethylene sheeting) to help prevent radon and other soil gases from entering the home.

  3. Vent Pipe - Run a 3-inch or 4-inch PVC pipe from the gas permeable layer up through the roof.

  4. Caulking and Sealing - Caulk and seal all openings in the foundation floor or walls to reduce the potential for soil gas entry.

And, the DEQ adds, if it is not already required by local building code, a contractor could also add an electrical junction box in the attic in case the system requires a fan for activation.

DEQ estimates that the costs of installing a system like this to be anywhere from $350-500, which when compared with the total cost of a building project seems like a pretty small price to pay to keep radon out of a house in the first place.

In addition, using techniques like the four advised above have a multitude of other benefits, such as not only reducing radon levels by about 50%, but reducing other soil gas concentrations as well. These systems can also boost energy efficiency on the project, help control moisture overall (which can also promote air quality by preventing mold), and provide a starting point for a future upgrade if elevated radon levels are detected later on.

According to federal law, each state is responsible for managing low-level radioactive waste for itself. In Michigan radon is regulated by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Radon testers and mitigators are not licensed in Michigan but anyone with a Michigan builders license who is interested in earning national radon measurement and mitigation certification should contact either the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) or the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB) for more information.

Although radon is odorless and not visible to the eye, its costs in terms of adverse health consequences are real and costly.  With a few simple, relatively inexpensive steps, contractors can mitigate the risks, and provide safety and peace of mind to homeowners.

If you are interested in how to get a contractors license in Michigan, we offer pre-license courses for builders. If you need to renew your license, check out our continuing education courses for Michigan builders.

Karla Allen, the author, is a researcher and writer for a variety of trades for At Your Pace Online, an online provider for Michigan builders through MIContractortraining.com for contractor pre-licensing and continuing education courses for builders.