Why and how to get your home tested for radon

  • A continuous radon monitor. Contributed photo

  • A system for measuring radon. Contributed photo

  • Karen Ahearn of Ahearn Radon Testing Contributed photo

  • A sample of the chart that clients receive showing what a mitigation system looks like. Contributed photo

  • Contributed photo—

For the Recorder
Published: 2/9/2021 10:52:19 AM

We are fast approaching the time of year when we may be starting to think about buying a home. While there are many considerations to such a significant purchase, radon testing is one of the least costly tests you can opt for in the process — and it could save you or a family member’s life.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon, which is an odorless gas, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, with 21,000 deaths recorded annually.

“It’s amazing that everyone is supposed to have a smoke detector, but a radioactive poisonous gas? No problem,” said Karen Ahearn, owner of Ahearn Radon Testing in Deerfield. 

Ahearn’s wry observation is born of over 20 years of providing testing services. She went on to provide important tips and information for home owners and buyers regarding radon and testing. Ahearn noted there are no laws governing radon testing in Massachusetts or any other state except for Rhode Island.

“Realtors are supposed to tell people they have the option (to test for radon), but there is really not that much information out there” she said. She added that knowing the radon level in a home you want to purchase will also inform you about what remediation you might have to either do or request of the seller.

How to test for radon

“We always ask everyone ahead of time to close all their windows for 12 hours before testing,” said Ahearn. She added that people often think they can’t be in the home before or during the test, but they can. Residents just need to be aware to not operate any kind of fans, air circulation utilities, or burn wood in fireplaces. Doors must also stay shut.

“For example, it wouldn’t be a time you want to move furniture in and out of the home. You want to basically keep the air in the home as stable as possible for a more accurate reading,” she said. Ahearn added that it is OK to use a wood or pellet stove during the time of testing.

Then, monitors are placed in appropriate areas of the home, generally the basement or near the foundation. Radon can seep into a home via cracks in foundations and walls and can also be detected in the water supply if you have a private or public well. There is a separate test for water, Ahearn noted.

The monitors run continuously for 48 hours and provide a reading on the hour, as readings can be affected in a number of ways throughout the day. Ahearn said things like torrential rain or other atmospheric events, ground shifting, even construction being performed as far away from the home as two miles can affect radon levels in a home.

“Even when your heat turns, (it) on can affect air flow and therefore radon levels,” she said. Ahearn said professionally performed tests are “highly sensitive.”

Tests for radon in water are sent to a lab for readings. Because radon is a gas, you would be more affected by radon in air than water. However, ingesting water with very high readings of radon can lead to stomach cancer, according to the EPA.

What the measurements mean

Radon is created as uranium, which is radioactive, and breaks down in the earth. The concentration of radon in the air is measured in units of picocuries per liter. Readings below 4 picocuries per liter are considered to be safe. Ahearn said she has seen readings as high as 140.

“But most of the readings tend to be in the teens or 20s,” she said. Unfortunately, you don’t have to have very high readings to be susceptible to radon attaching to dust particles and breathing them in. “You don’t need high readings to end up with lung cancer.”

Ahearn said once in awhile it can be tricky to find the correct spot to test or remediate. For example, if new construction has been added onto the home. Also, tests are usually performed only up to three floors up as concentration of the gas is usually closest to the ground and each floor is a “buffer.”

Do it yourself?

Ahearn said the cost of and average radon test performed by professionals averages $150 to $175. Do-it-yourself tests average around $60, but you are less likely to have an accurate assessment or readings. Problems that can arise with home kits range from improper collection, to a poor seal on the sample, to the sample not making to the lab in time if the mail is delayed Ahearn said.

“A professionally done test is infinitely more accurate,” she said. Also, if the house is on a slab, don’t assume you don’t need testing as slabs can also crack she said. 

Remediation of radon

If high levels of radon are detected in your home or a home you are purchasing, remediation is generally performed by appropriate placement of PVC piping fitted with a fan that sucks the radon out of the space, such as a basement, and pushes it out of the house and into the atmosphere. Radon disperses and is broken down in the atmosphere and becomes generally harmless, Ahearn said.

“The issue is with concentration,” she added. Remediation for high levels of radon in water are “two to three times more expensive,” said Ahearn.

For more information about radon testing, contact Ahearn Radon Testing at 413-586-8730.

Cris Carl is an avid local gardener, licensed therapist and certified herbalist. She is an experienced journalist who has written for the Recorder for many years. cstormfox57@gmail.com.

Greenfield Recorder

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