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Column: Without proper ventilation, homes can build up this harmful gas
Rudi Kiefer

If you were born and raised on the Georgia Coast, you may never have heard of radon. It was once a hot topic in the media. Currently, the big news items have pushed it into the background. There’s no reason for sleepless nights. But it’s something to stay watchful about.

Unlike the coastal plain, which is of recent geological age, areas of very old bedrock often contain some radioactive elements. They allow a gas to emerge through the soil and then disperse in the atmosphere. That’s radon, measured in pCi/L (picocuries per Liter). It’s no problem outdoors because it dilutes quickly in open air. But if it accumulates indoors, it can cause lung cancer.  According to the EPA, radon causes 21,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

That’s 21,000 too many. First, one needs to look for causes of radon build-up. Tightly enclosed crawlspaces are hazardous because the gas can’t escape. It has no smell and won’t “sting” when inhaled. But it damages lung tissue over time. So it needs to be prevented from building up underneath the house and seeping into living areas.  Cross-ventilation of the foundation is important. Closing vents to save heat in winter isn’t a good idea because it may allow radon to accumulate. Many homes sit on concrete slabs instead of crawl spaces. “All concrete develops cracks over time,” my local contractor told me.  Looking at my driveway confirms this statement. But the slab foundation isn’t readily accessible to search for cracks. It’s covered with carpet, tiles, or vinyl. 

This is where testing is a good idea. One can hire a professional, but there are radon test kits readily available for do-it-yourselfers. A local hardware store chain advertises them for under $15. Place the kit in a low-lying area for a couple of days as specified in the instructions, then send it to the laboratory for results.

If the lab replies with a troubling radon concentration, you don’t need to tear the house down. Proper ventilation and sealing of cracks are likely to fix the problem. There is good information about this on www.epa.gov/radon.

The good news is that in Georgia the EPA site shows low, medium and high radon areas on a map. Hall, Banks, White, Lumpkin and other nearby counties are in the “medium” category with 2 to 4 pCi/L, not the high one.

 

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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