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Radon – What is it? TEST NOW!

 

Radon 

What is it and why is it important to consider?

By Frank J. Delle Donne, Licensed Home Inspector

December 15, 2013

About the author.  I am a NJ Licensed Home Inspector.  I am the owner and Senior Inspector at Regal Home Inspections, LLC.  I have been a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician for over 20 years and was  a past member of the Colts Neck, NJ Board of Health and was Chairman of that Board for 2008 and 2009.    During my studies to become a Home Inspector and earning my NJ Certification to be a Radon Measurement Technician I learned a great deal about Radon and felt compelled to share that information in a manner that is easy to understand and increases awareness.  Every home in New Jersey should be tested for Radon on a regular basis.  Regal Home Inspections, LLC is having a year end 2013 and a New Year 2014 SPECIAL on Radon testing.  These discounted prices are good through January 31, 2014.  Please call now to schedule your Radon test.

It is likely that every adult has heard of Radon and may have an idea about what it is.  This report is intended to shed some additional light on Radon and hopefully motivate and inspire you to have your house tested for Radon concentration levels. You maintain your smoke alarms and check your car’s brakes regularly because it’s the right thing to do.  Prudent, right?  It protects your safety, doesn’t it?  Well after you read this you should be similarly motivated to call us today to have your home tested for Radon.

So let’s begin with a simple question; What is Radon?  Radon is a gas.  It is odorless and colorless and can’t be detected by human senses.  Uranium and Radium precede Radon in the spontaneous transformation  chain.  Uranium and Radium are solids that exist underground.  As they go through radioactive decay the next link on the chain is Radon, now a radioactive gas.  Elements that are radioactive spontaneously transform at the atomic level.  One radioactive elements spontaneously releases energy and becomes another element and so on.  Hence the use of the word, “Chain”.

There are other gasses that we’re aware of and concerned about, aren’t there?  There’s CO or carbon monoxide.  There’s natural gas like the gas we use to heat our homes and cook with.  We all know that these two gasses, CO and natural gas can be dangerous and even lethal.  CO can kill if breathed for minutes and natural gas can kill if it seeps into the house and then explodes.  Remember the final scene in the movie, Shooter?  Ka-Boom!

Except for all being gasses however, the difference between Radon and CO and natural gas are very different.  First, Radon is naturally occurring and seeps up from below ground.  It is not flammable so it will not explode and it will not kill you, like CO will, if breathed in for minutes.  No, Radon can kill in a different way.

In New Jersey the state is divided into 3 Tiers.  High Radon Potential, Moderate and Low.  The preceding map gives you an idea of where these areas are and if you are in a High or Moderate Radon Potential area YOU SHOULD get your home tested annually or even twice a year.

Why is regular testing important?  Well it’s important because of how Radon creates health problems and the type of health problem it creates.  Also because there are a number of environmental factors that may slow or hasten the entry of Radon into your home.  A good reading or measurement in the spring does not guarantee a good reading or measurement in the winter.  Misunderstanding or relying on your one-time results could be harmful. 

Radon is a radioactive gas.  This means that Radon, as a gas will spontaneously transform creating a chain reaction of sorts.  Radon will go through radioactive decay and change into Polonium-218.   In turn Polonium-218 will spontaneously go through its radioactive decay and change in to Lead-214.  Lead-214 will in turn transform into Bismuth-214 and then into Polonium-214.  This is almost the same as Polonium 218 but not exactly.  Polonium-214 will go through its radioactive decay and become Lead-210.  These elements following Radon are referred to as Radon Decay Products (RDP), Radon Daughters or Radon Progeny.   

An atomic primer: Most atoms have the same number of Protons and Neutrons.  An element’s “Atomic Number” is the number of Protons; Hydrogen has 1 Proton so it’s atomic number is 1.  Radon has 86 Protons so its atomic number is 86.  When one calculates an atom’s Atomic Mass we add the Protons and Neutrons.  Since most atoms have the same number of Protons and Neutrons, “usually” the atomic mass is twice the Protons.  Hydrogen’s atomic mass is 2; 1 Proton and 1 Neutron.  Helium has an atomic mass of 4; 2 Protons and 2 Neutrons.

A different type of atom is an Isotope.  Isotopes are different because they have a different number of Protons and Neutrons.  Since Radon’s atomic number is 86, Radon-222 (Rn-222) means that there are 136 Neutrons; 86+136=222.  Earlier I mentioned Polonium-218 (Po-218) and Polonium-214 (Po-214).  Both Poloniums have 84 Protons but since both Po-218 and Po-214 are isotopes they have different numbers of neutrons.  Po-218 has 134 Neutrons and Po-214 has 130.

So Radon is a gas and if it’s in the air you will breathe it in.  Regardless of if the Radon is in your lungs or in the air, it will go through its radioactive decay cycle.  The issues are many.  First Polonium, Bismuth and Lead are all solids.  Yes, the gas Radon becomes a solid.  So these particles now will stick to your lungs and settle.  Second, when these radioactive decays occur the decay process releases energy.  Very, very, very small amounts of energy but when these atoms are in your lungs, this energy has the potential to do cellular level and DNA level harm.   So what’s the big deal about, “energy”?  Well if we refer to the energy in its proper terms then maybe you will start to understand the issue.  There are actually three forms of energy released during the radioactive decay processes mentioned a moment ago.  Each element does not release all three types of energy but most release two of the three.  Those energy forms are ALPHA RADIATION, BETA RADIATION AND GAMMA RADIATION.  Now do they sound harmful?  In Alpha decay the atom (Radon-222, Polonium-218 or Polonium-214 will spontaneously release 2 neutrons and 2 protons.  These equate to an atomic mass of 4 (Helium) therefore reducing the atomic mass of each atom by four.  Bismuth and Lead decay releasing Beta and Gamma radiation.  In Beta radiation an electron is released and a Neutron is changed to a Proton.  In Gamma radiation energy in the form of a photon is released.  At the cellular level and DNA level these particles of energy, Alpha, Beta and Gamma, are causing destruction and this is why they are harmful.  This damage can start a chain reaction leading to cancer.  Ionizing radiation has the power and energy to cause electrons in nearby atoms to escape their natural orbit.

It’s interesting to consider each element’s half life because this will start to give you an idea of what’s going on with Radon and Radon decay products.  Radon has a half life of 3.8 days.  This means that half the Radon will go through its spontaneous transformation in 3.8 days.  Energy is released.  The result is Polonium-218.  It has a half life of 3 minutes.  Half is now Lead-218 and it has a half life of 27 minutes.  Half of it releases its Beta and Gamma radiation and now we have Bismuth-218 half of which decays in 20 minutes and also releases Beta and Gamma radiation and becomes Polonium-218.  Polonium-218 has a half life of 160micro seconds (very fast) and releases Alpha and Gamma Radiation.  Now multiply the original Radon atom by millions and you can see how the numbers, and damage can add up. 

Again, it’s important to note that the levels of the energy or radiation are very, very, very, very small.  But when the energy is being released hour after hour, day after day and it’s occurring inside your delicate lung tissue you can see why Radon and the Radon Decay Products (RDPs) are the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking.   If you never (never, ever, ever) smoked you have a 7 in 1000 chance of getting lung cancer from Radon if your exposure is at the EPA’s Action Level (of 4pCi/L).  If you were a smoker (EPA refers to “Ever Smoked”) you have a 62 in 1000 chance of getting lung cancer if your exposure is at the EPA’s Action Level.  If your exposure is higher than 4pCi/l your chances of getting lung cancer in both smoked and never smoked goes up. 

So you had your house tested once and it had a good reading.  So you’re OK, right?  WRONG!!!  There are many factors that go into Radon penetration in a home.   First, was the house tested under proper, “Closed House” conditions?  What was the weather outside?  Was it winter or summer?  All these things, and many others, can impact your Radon measurement.  This is why it’s good to test regularly.  If a test is made and it’s high, take another test.   If you last test was in the winter, test again in the summer and vice-versa.  I had one client that had their house tested weeks apart and one reading was 4.8pCi/L and the other was 1.1pCi/L.  The point is test frequently as financially possible.  If you’ve just moved into a new house and it tested well, you will do yourself a favor if you test monthly or every other month for the first year.  Test frequently particularly if you have a young family and plan on being in the home for a long time.  Imagine a wheel-of-chance like you see at an amusement park.  The wheel is divided into 52 sections.  Each section represents one calendar week.  If you test once, you will not be capturing a representative sample of your home’s radon potential.  Barometric pressure, wind speed and wind direction, use of a fireplace and many, many other factors can affect your Radon test reading.  Some days and weeks promote Radon infiltration into your house and some do not.  It’s like spinning the wheel.  Sometimes your number comes up and sometimes it doesn’t.   However, when you spin the wheel you are not risking your health. 

Unlike CO and natural gas, Radon kills slowly.  So my recommendation is to call Regal Home Inspections, LLC now.  Let’s get you scheduled for a Radon test and then on a regular schedule for periodic testing.  If your test results are good that’s good for this, “snap-shot” but it does not guarantee that the next test will also be good.  If the test is high, we can re-test to confirm the findings.  If we get multiple reading above the EPA’s Action Level then you should install a Radon Mitigation System.  Regal Home Inspections DOES NOT install Radon Mitigation Systems.  So we’re NOT looking to find a problem so we can sell you on a more expensive product or service.  We are a Certified Radon Test Measurement company.  We will facilitate the test and work with a reputable lab that will analyze the test canisters and provide the results. I can help you interpret the results and continue to provide you with peace-of-mind with regular testing with or without mitigation.

Please call today to schedule your  radon test for your family.  Discounted prices are valid for tests started by January 31, 2014.

I would appreciate your comments about this article.  Please email your comments to frank07722@gmail.com