Radon, a radioactive gas, can’t be seen, smelled or tasted. But it can cause serious health effects if people are exposed to it. The Environmental Protection Agency places most of Montana in the high-risk category for radon exposure.

During January, National Radon Awareness Action month, the EPA encourages homeowners to test for radon with an inexpensive and easy-to-use kit. If the kit shows high levels of radon, people should take steps to reduce their exposure. On average, one out of every 15 homes in the United States has a radon problem. Testing is best done in colder months, when windows and doors are typically closed.

What is radon?

Radon occurs through the natural decay of uranium found in the earth’s surface. Radon can enter homes and other buildings through gaps in construction joints, cracks in the foundation, and open areas around ill-fitting pipes. If you rely on well water, it can also find its way into your drinking water. Once radon enters your home, it gets trapped there, and builds up over time. Radon is one of the most common sources of indoor air pollution. Long-term exposure can be dangerous to your health.

Why should I worry?

Most of Montana is considered to be in the high-risk zone for radon, according to the EPA. The average radon levels detected in Montana homes and buildings are well above levels considered safe.

Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 21,000 deaths a year are linked to lung cancer from radon exposure. That figure is higher than the 17,000 deaths a year from drinking and driving.

Indoor air quality may be up to five times worse for your health than the outdoor air quality since people tend to spend most of their time indoors.

How can I make my home safe?

As a first step, the EPA recommends homeowners test for radon themselves or hire a professional contractor offering this service. Do-it-yourself test kits are sold at hardware and home improvement stores and online for less than $20.

If the radon level is 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) or higher, homeowners should take steps to reduce radon levels. Since radon is a dangerous gas, homeowners should seek advice from a licensed radon mitigation contractor. Options for reducing radon levels may include:

  • Sealing all cracks, gaps and openings — especially in the basement or crawl spaces below the home.
  • Installing a soil suction mechanism that vents radon from beneath your home up through a pipe and disperses it to the outside.
  • Installing an air-to-air heat exchanger, which is also known as a HRV, Heat Recovery Ventilator, to create more ventilation.
  • Pressurizing your house by using fans to blow air into the basement, preventing contaminated air from entering upstairs living spaces.

These methods for reducing radon can make most homes safe. More information can be found at http://deq.mt.gov/Energy/radon or through the EPA’s Home Buyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon.

Megan Herrenkohl, a Registered Sanitarian, can be reached at 256-2770 or megan.her@riverstonehealth.org.