Another Scary Thing In The Basement

January is National Radon Action Month

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Every night, homeowners lock their doors, and maybe set an alarm system to keep out danger or intruders. But there's one danger that quite literally can slip through the cracks and come inside: radon gas. 

Radon gas is element number 86 on the periodic table, a colorless, tasteless, and odorless radioactive gas that is naturally produced from the breakdown of uranium present in the earth's rock. Unfortunately for us, the radioactivity of it has been demonstrated to cause lung cancer in humans, so much so that radon exposure is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and the number two cause of lung cancer overall after cigarette smoking. It's estimated that between 15,000 and 22,000 people die every year from radon-caused lung cancer.

One would think that radon, once released from the ground, would easily escape into the atmosphere and become quickly diluted with the surrounding air. Well that's exactly what happens around most homes and buildings. Most homes draw over 99% of the indoor air from the outside atmosphere. In homes that have a basement though, the construction of the basement creates differences in air pressure around the basement walls. The higher air pressure around the basement causes a disproportionate amount of the air in the home to come from ground air, up to 20% in some cases. Openings in a house's foundation or porous material used in construction also allow the gas to move in more quickly.

No state in the union is immune to the dangers of radon, as it is present in all fifty states. The EPA has estimated that as many as 1 in 5 homes have elevated radon levels. The good news is that it's very easy to have your home tested for it's presence. A simple test kit, which is usually hung in the lowest level of the house for a few days, can be purchased at most hardware stores, or can be ordered through the mail from a radon measurement business. Many states require these businesses to be regulated, so you can be sure of their quality. The EPA has a link on their website where you can directly contact the state agency of where you live to find a qualified tester. (

If you have your home tested and find out that the radon level is elevated, it's important to take measures to reduce it. The most common way to reduce radon is through a system called “sub-slab depressurization.” This is where a pipe is installed below the home and a fan sucks the sub-basement air away from the basement and into the outside. There are other options as well, such a sump-pump style ventilation system, and a positive-pressure style ventilation system to draw fresh air into the basement.

Of course, if you're buying a home, you should have it tested for radon. The EPA recommends to NOT buy a new home if the radon level is above the safe level. When building a new home, most contractors now build with radon-resistant features, such as sealing the foundation, airtight plastic sheeting around the basement, and vent pipes.

Remember, a high level of radon in your home isn't like that leaky faucet or creaky floorboard you've been putting off. High radon in your home can have serious health effects. Take the time to get your home checked for a deadly gas that may be lurking in the basement. Your lungs will thank you for it. 

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 14, 2011
Last Updated:
March 1, 2011