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Radon testing—when, why and how?

Insights and info from Stewart Cole, D.O., Radiology

Q: WHAT IS RADON AND WHY SHOULD I TEST MY HOUSE FOR IT?
Radon is a cancer-causing gas that can build up to dangerous levels in any home — new or old, drafty or airtight, with or without a basement. It’s the No. 1 cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers, and is the second leading cause of lung cancer overall in the United States. We’re all exposed to a certain level of normal, daily background radiation. Harmful health effects occur when our exposure goes beyond this normal level. That’s what happens with long-term exposure to radon. Radon is especially harmful to children, who are more sensitive to it. Since radiation damage is permanent and cumulative, exposure in childhood has a lifelong effect. Smokers exposed to radon are at very high risk for lung cancer, as well. You can’t see or smell radon — the only way to detect it is with a test kit.

Q: WHAT LEVEL OF RADON IS CONSIDERED UNSAFE?
Radon is measured in units called picocuries. The average indoor level in the U.S. is 1.3 picocuries per litre of air, or 1.3 pCi/L. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends action to reduce exposure if levels reach 4 pCi/L or higher.

Q: DO RADON LEVELS VARY REGIONALLY?
Yes — they can even vary widely from home to home in the same neighborhood. Nationally, about one in 15 homes, or about 7 percent of homes, is estimated to have radon levels over 4 pCi/L. In Multnomah County, the numbers are much higher: 32 percent of homes have radon levels over 4 pCi/L according to or-radon.info. In fact, 4 pCi/L is the average radon level in Multnomah County. In Clark County, 21 percent of homes test higher than 4 pCi/L; in Clackamas County, 18 percent do, and in Washington County, 13 percent do.

Q: HOW DO I TEST FOR RADON?
You can find a simple and inexpensive ($15 to $20) test kit in just about any hardware store or home-improvement department. Kits also are available online. Since the kits measure an extremely small amount of radiation, it’s important to follow the test instructions exactly in order to get accurate results.

Q: WHEN SHOULD I TEST?
There’s no time like the present — January is National Radon Action Month. The highest radon levels are often seen in the winter, when windows and doors stay closed.

Q: WHAT SHOULD I DO IF MY HOME HAS HIGH RADON?
First, run another test. If it confirms the results, don’t panic — correcting the problem is usually straightforward. You can find a certified specialist at: www.nrpp.info or www.nrsb.org.

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