Editor’s note: This is a first-person reflection essay. The author’s opinions don’t represent those of NCI, NCI at Frederick, Frederick National Laboratory, or the National Institutes of Health. Mentions of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. government.
Test your home for radon. I could think of at least 10 reasons why I didn’t want to. It was something else to add to the endless to-do list. The test kit would be expensive. If the test showed high levels, addressing the radon problem would be more expensive. In short, it was going to be a pain.
But as it happens, it wasn’t.
As I collaborated with the Environment, Health, and Safety and Occupational Health Services team planning Radon Action Month at NCI at Frederick, the list of reasons to test my house for the radioactive gas began to accumulate much faster than I could find excuses not to.
The eastern ridge of the Appalachian Mountains is especially prone to radon hazards. Tests have detected radon levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended action level of 4 picocuries per liter by threefold in parts of the range where Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia cluster.
Paul Marshall, senior environment, health, and safety manager, sent me additional information about radon levels in Maryland. Some of the data sets recorded the highest average levels of radon in Frederick County, where I live. Kylee Stenersen, an environment, health, and safety officer, compiled information about the negative health effects of prolonged exposure to high radon levels.
The conversations made me curious, too. I was instructed to have a radon test performed when I bought my house a few years ago, but in the whirlwind of real estate contracts, forms, and insurance policies, its results had been diluted to “All good, dude.” In the chaos, I had been happy to accept that. But now? I had no excuse, especially given that I had agreed to write an article about Radon Action Month.
The logic and curiosity became hard to ignore. I resolved to buy a kit.
$3 and a Slice of Time
Residents of Maryland can order kits for $3 each through the state’s Department of Environmental Health website. While it seemed too easy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that $3 did indeed mean only $3. I placed my order and, two weeks later, found the kit tucked in my mailbox. The tiny parcel easily fit through the letter slot.
The package contained a small, simple container that uses activated charcoal to measure radon levels over time. The test begins as soon as the kit is unsealed from its wrapper and exposed to air, and it ends when it’s sealed in the return package.
After clearing away an eclectic pile of tools, half-empty paint cans, and unread instruction manuals from the basement workbench, I simply unsealed the kit and walked away. The instructions—which I did read—were straightforward: find a suitable space for the kit on the lowest residential level of the house, don’t disturb it after the test begins, don’t prop open any doors or windows, and don’t run a vent fan.
The last step proved to be impossible—the compact full bath, two floors above, would become tropical during showers without the vent—but the remaining guidelines required little effort. After the initial setup, so little changed that I forgot about the kit and nearly failed to stop the test before its maximum time threshold.
Thankfully, something jogged my memory on the final day. I sealed the kit in the return package, registered it on the testing website, and elected to pay the optional $10 fee for expedited analysis. After a short trip to the post office and another few dollars for a mailing envelope (the kit includes prepaid return postage but no envelope), the test was on its way to the laboratory.
A PDF of the results landed in my inbox a few days later. The measurements were reassuring: only 1.1 picocuries per liter, well below the EPA’s action level.
For only a couple of bucks and roughly an hour of total effort, my curiosity had been satisfied. “All good, dude,” had been right, after all.
Big Investments and Bigger Investments
The results meant I could avoid the admittedly pricey process of radon mitigation, a typically contractor-managed renovation project that averages from $800–$2,000, depending on a house’s size, age, and construction.
The most common techniques involve installing a pipe through the basement floor, supported by further piping and fans to suction out the radon and vent it above the house; using a similar system that places the pipe in a trench dug underneath the house; or, for crawlspaces, installing a high-density plastic sheet combined with a piping and venting system underneath the house. It’s a big commitment, but it’s a worthwhile one, said Paul Marshall.
“It’s hard to put a price tag on preventing disease. Numerous factors contribute, and one can rarely be sure the prevention effort will be worth it. With radon, however, it’s very clear that high levels lead to higher risk of developing cancer. The cost in dollars and emotional duress of dealing with cancer is enormous compared to the investment to fix a radon problem,” he said.
I can rest in the comfort of knowing my house is in the “safe zone.” Yet even if the test results had shown high levels of radon, I would have at least been able to plan to have it addressed. The long-term health benefits would pay off in spite of the expense.
“Once the problem is fixed, you and future inhabitants of the dwelling will be protected,” Marshall said.
The experience reminded me of one of the often-repeated maxims from when I was buying my house: “Homes are one of life’s biggest investments.” It could be said that they’re second only to personal health. There’s value in monitoring and caring for them both.
Testing for radon is a way to do both at once. Despite my initial grumbling, I’ve become convinced.
Samuel Lopez is a technical editor in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM), where he writes for NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory’s news outlets; manages the day-to-day operations of the Poster newsletter; informally serves as an institutional historian; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documentation, and a slew of other written media. SPGM is the facilities’ creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, and multimedia training and support.