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Take time after the holidays to ferret out an unwelcome guest in your house: Radon.

David Floyd • Jan 11, 2016 at 11:33 AM

It’s silent, but deadly. Odorless, and invisible. No, it’s not a highly-trained assassin. It’s radon. And radon can be pretty scary.

January is Radon Action Month, a time period after the holidays when the cold drives people back into their homes.

Radon gas is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States behind smoking. Experts estimate that radon-related lung cancer causes 15,000 to 22,000 deaths per year.

Because so many people are confined to indoor locations during the winter, it’s an ideal to time to check the house for dangerous conditions — particularly radon gas.

“Radon is a naturally occurring element,” said Vaughn Cassidy, an environmental consultant with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “The Earth, as all large planetary bodies, is very dense at its core, and it has uranium within it. When and where it can, it irradiates other lower-level radioactive materials, and one of them is radon.”

Overall, radon is most prevalent in areas that have a lot of exposed bedrock, like Colorado, but it has appeared in every county in Tennessee regardless of the terrain, especially in the eastern part of the state where the landscape is more mountainous.

Soil can act as a barrier between the bedrock and the outside air, slowing radon’s progress, but the natural breakdown of radioactive materials in soil can cause radon to seep into houses, gathering in dense concentrations in enclosed spaces.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 70 percent of people living in Tennessee live in high to moderate risk radon zones, lending credence to Cassidy’s belief that all Tennessee residents should check their homes for radon.

“We really can’t determine just because you live in a certain area that you don’t have radon,” Cassidy said. “You need to test your home.”

TDEC offers free testing kits on their website that give a simple estimate of the concentration of radon individuals might have in their homes. The kits contain a form of charcoal that absorbs radon particles in the air.

The charcoal should be kept in an open envelope situated 2 to 6 feet off the ground and positioned in a location far from air vents, fans or open doors, preventing the charcoal from picking up outside air. A filter can be attached near the top of the envelope to ensure that contaminants won’t affect the outcome of the test.

After at least three days, individuals can mail the kit back to Air Check Inc., the suppliers of test, where the kit will be evaluated to determine how much radon is in the respondent’s home. 

In the event the amount of radon in a home is above a safe level, Cassidy strongly recommends that homeowners seek assistance from a certified contractor. 

The contractor will install a series of pipes and fans that will redirect the radon away from the house and into the air above the building.

“The whole process is basically a heart bypass,” Cassidy said. “It’s still there, it just gets pulled up with a fan and piping and routed up and out through the roof so it isn’t a threat to you anymore.”

A list of certified contractors can be found on nrpp.info

To recognize Radon Action Month, TDEC staff will partner with members of communities across the state to offer educational opportunities for Tennessee residents.

Johnson City will host an event from 1-4:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Niswonger Children’s Hospital.

Because radon can be such a pernicious pest to homeowners — again, it’s odorless, tasteless and invisible — Cassidy maintains that, regardless of your location in the state, it’s important to get your home tested.

“Every home needs to be tested,” Cassidy said. “Not just areas where we have mapped high levels.”

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