What is Radon (Yes, It’s Radioactive…No, It’s Not A Godzilla Villain)?

by Erik North on September 27, 2011

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What is radon? Radon is one of those New England boogie phrases like ‘standing water’ or ‘Olympia Snowe’. Just frightening. But what is radon and why do your neighbors insist on mitigating it?

Yes, What is Radon – Your Wiki Style Answer

Radon, despite sounding suspiciously like a Godzilla movie character, is a radioactive gaseous element created from the decay of uranium and is common in all soils. Radon has the Atomic Number 86 and the Periodic symbol RN (thank you, Wikipedia). It is colorless and odorless and is the heaviest element that maintains a gaseous form under normal conditions.

Radon is an ironically named (we’ll get to the radioactive nastiness in a bit) member of the noble gas group with Argon and Krypton. Radon is radioactive with a very short half life (the most common isotope has a half-life of just under 4 days), meaning that it rapidly decays and emits loads of ionizing radiation. Yech. Because of this and it’s prevalence throughout the U.S., radon inhalation is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking.

The good news: It is very easy to test for and the solutions are well known and proven (I had to throw this in after re-reading how scary the first few paragraphs were).

What is Radon and Energy Auditing

So…how does radon affect energy auditing (and audit recommendations for your home)? Radon naturally occurs in all 50 states, particularly those with abundant granite. In a relevant side note, New Hampshire is ‘The Granite State’ and just about any other state in the northeast could’ve snagged the nickname. Yes, radon is a big deal up here.

Houses built on or near granite ledge run an elevated risk of radon infiltration. Radon can be waterborne, entering through a well, ground water or sump holes. Airborne radon leaks in through foundation cracks, seams in the building enclosure framing and other flaws in the building’s air barrier. Older, pre-concrete foundation, homes can have radon streaming directly in from a dirt floor.

Radon and Home Projects

Radon indirectly connects with energy auditing and your home. Radon testing is outside the normal purview of an audit. However, two very common homeowner conversations connect directly with radon concerns: weatherization and finishing your basement. Greater risks from radon come with prolonged exposure and both of these common home projects could increase the possibility of longer exposure.

Weatherization covers all those caulking, foam and air-sealing projects that make your home less leaky and hopefully warmer. And reducing air leaks means that the air within your home stays there longer. You can see where this is headed…if the air moves more slowly, airborne contaminants like radon will stick around longer. Yech.

Finishing your basement (or insulating it) can cause similar exposure issues. Finished basements often include TV rooms, spare or second bedrooms and ‘man caves’. People can spend many waking and sleeping hours in these renovated living spaces. If a home’s radon originates in the basement, residents can spend longer periods at heightened exposure. What if the basement ceiling were insulated with spray foam or included a plastic air barrier, reducing the basement air flow?

When considering major projects that will alter the building enclosure, make sure you’re not exacerbating any radon issues.

What is Radon…Remember the Good News

So what is Radon? It’s a surprisingly common problem and left unaddressed, a potentially lethal one.

But remember the Good News!: Home radon testing is inexpensive, professional testing can help and solutions to any issues are readily available.

Additional Information:
For a path to many more resources on home-based radon, here’s the EPA’s site for their ‘Citizen’s Guide to Radon’

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