Health Department encourages home radon testing

05/20/03 12:00AM By Nina Keck
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(Host) You can't see it. You can't smell it or taste it, but naturally occurring radon gas can cause serious long-term health problems. One in six homes in Vermont has high levels of radon, and as VPR's Nina Keck reports, the state Health Department would like more people to test for it:


(Keck) Brief exposure to radon hasn't been shown to be a problem. But over a lifetime, breathing in too much of the radioactive gas increases a person's chances of getting lung cancer. According to the National Academy of Sciences, radon is estimated to cause between 15,000 and 20,000 lung cancer deaths a year - making it the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

Brian Wemple is an environmental engineer with the Vermont Department of Health:

(Wemple) "It's prevalent everywhere. It's a natural breakdown product from uranium in the ground that's everywhere in the bedrock. And as soon as you build a house or a structure, you tend to concentrate radon somewhat and the levels go up."

(Keck) Wemple says that while there are some areas in the state which are so-called "hot spots," the only way to know for sure if your home has high levels of radon is to test for it.

(Wemple) "And it's not just what's in the ground, but how it interacts with the building structure. It's how the home interacts with the soil gasses that are below the home. So it's easy to have a house, one of a dozen, with a high level while the other eleven on the very same block are nice and low."

(Keck) To encourage testing, the state provides free long-term test kits, which take between three months and year to complete. Short-term test kits, which take 48 hours, are available at many hardware stores for about $25.

Many home inspectors also provide testing services. Gary Perzanowski is a member of the National Radon Safety Board and a technician for Criterium-LaLancette Engineers, a home inspection firm in Rutland.

(Perzanowski) "Okay, so we're just going to turn this machine on. I am going to record some identification data here. Serial number 6654, test number 42."

(Keck) Perzanowski sets up an electronic radon detector in the downstairs family room of a house in Chittenden. It's a blue box about the size of a stereo receiver. He'll come back to pick the box up in two days. If the levels are high, he says he'd recommend that the owner install a radon mitigation system - basically a three- to four-inch piece of pipe that starts in the home's foundation and exits through the roof to vent out gases.

While the technology is simple, it's not cheap. Installing the ventilation system typically costs about $1,500. Radon isn't something you should panic about, Perzanowski says, but if you plan on living in your home for many years to come or if you plan to sell your home, he says fixing the problem is a good investment.

(Perzanowski) "Well, when you consider the alternative. Long term exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, behind active cigarette smoking, I think $1,500 is a bargain."

(Keck) You can get more information on radon, by calling the state's radon information number toll free at (800) 439-8550. Or you can visit their website at www.healthyvermonters.info.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland.


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