“What’s radon?” That question came up in a conversation recently. I suspect that the majority of North Dakotans have heard something about radon in our soils and that it is associated with lung cancer. It is definitely here, but I rarely hear mention of radon in conversations.
Radon is an element. It is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless radioactive gas. It is on the periodic table of elements over on the far-right column. Its symbol is Rn, and it has an atomic number of 86. But it is the radioactive aspect of radon that is of concern.
Radioactive substances are unstable, and as a result give off radiation. Radon is one of several breakdown products in the decay of Uranium. Uranium may be found in bedrock, water, or soil, but remember that radon is a gas, so may also be found in the air. It might surprise you, but exposure to radon ranks second only to smoking as a cause of lung cancer.
Radon is not much of a risk in the outdoors because it is so diluted in the atmosphere. But in buildings close to the ground such as basements, first floors, and crawlspaces, particularly with poor ventilation, radon may move up from the ground and through porous material, cracks in the foundation, sump holes, and the like to become concentrated in the space above.
Here in the United States, it has been estimated that 1 in 15 homes have elevated levels of radon. A quick look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s map of radon risk levels shows that all of North Dakota and a good portion of our region lies in what the EPA calls Zone 1, the zone of highest risk. Furthermore, according to the North Dakota Department of Health’s Radon Factsheet, 63% of North Dakota homes test above the action level, the level at which corrective action is recommended.
Testing kits for radon are widely available and affordable. As I understand it, if an area tests high for radon, corrective action such as sealing floors and foundations and/or installing better ventilation can often markedly reduce the risk factors.
See North Dakota Department of Health’s webpage on radon here.