Radon Testing Kits
Radon is a cancer-causing, radioactive gas. You can't see, smell or taste radon. But it may be a problem in your home. Recently, The University of Iowa College of Public Health performed a study that suggests all home radon testing kits are not equal. Bill Field, PhD, professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health and the Department of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health, and chair of the Radon Measurement Working Group for the World Health Organizations' International Radon Project, talks about radon:
- Where does radon come from?
Radon gas is a radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of naturally occurring radium-226 found in soils and rocks that surround the foundations of our homes and offices. Iowa has the highest average radon concentration in the nation due to our glacier history. As the glaciers came over Iowa, they deposited finely ground rocks and these rocks have a tremendous potential to emanate radon. Studies performed here at The University of Iowa have demonstrated that radon is a serious environmental health threat and second leading cause of lung cancer.
- How does radon get into our homes?
Radon gas can enter even through small cracks in the foundation or openings in the foundation of homes like sump pumps or spaces around pipe penetrations. For some individuals with wells, waterborne radon can enter the home and become airborne during showering, dishwashing. This is generally a small contribution compared to ground sources like the radon that enters around pipe penetrations or through cracks.
- Who should test their home for radon?
Everyone should test their homes for radon, especially in Iowa where we have the highest average radon concentrations in the nation. And you can't really tell. Even if two homes on a street have low radon concentrations, the home between them may be high. The only way to know is to test.
- How is radon generally tested for in homes?
Most people, homeowners or business owners, purchase a radon test kit purchased from a variety of local stores, including hardware stores or large discount stores. They can also be purchased online or from local health departments.
One kind is referred to as a short-term test, it's usually placed for a week; or longer term testing can be placed for three months to a year. In the United States, more short-term tests are purchased. These short-term tests provide a rapid indication of whether a home has the potential for elevated radon concentrations or radon tests can be performed by certified professionals; but they don't need to be.
- How was the recent study comparing radon home testing kits conducted?
Kainan Sun, a graduate fellow within the College of Public Health, performed the testing in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency. Commercially built radon detectors from seven major companies around the United States were purchased from local hardware stores like the homeowners would purchase them. They exposed the radon detectors to known radon concentrations in the Environmental Protection Agency's chamber in Las Vegas. After the controlled exposures, the detectors were returned to the laboratories in a manner that would be blinded to the companies. In other words, the companies didn't know they were being tested.
- What were the results of the study?
Well, detectors from some companies displayed less accuracy than guidelines established by the Environmental Protection Agency. In particular, detectors performed worse when they were exposed under higher humidity, so they weren't quite as accurate as we had hoped for.
- What does this study suggest as follow up?
I think scientific follow-up is definitely needed and there needs to be some sort of development of independent groups, either at the state or federal level, to assess the accuracy of commercially available radon detectors on an ongoing basis.
- If the testing kit results vary, are there other steps a homeowner can take to ensure their home does not contain radon?
I would recommend that homeowners test their homes, followed by a repeat test to assess the variation of the test devices themselves. Radon within a home can have temporal variations. Ideally, the second tests are concurrent tests, that is tests performed at the same time using kits from two vendors. An inexpensive radon test can be purchased from Linn County Health Department. I think these detectors can generally be purchased for under $15.
- If they find that they have high levels of radon, what can they do?
I would confirm the tests. If the tests are confirmed, homeowners can remove radon. Usually it takes the assistance of a radon mitigation specialist, but it can be removed from homes or offices by installing a radon mitigation system and these systems evacuate the radon prior to it entering the home. The cost runs around $1,200 to $1,500 to have such a system installed. Fortunately, these costs can be covered under a health care spending account if a homeowner has such a plan through their workplace. And a list of certified mitigators can be obtained from the Iowa Department of Public Health and their toll-free number is 800-383-5992.