While most of the environmental toxins discussed in this chapter are made by humans, radon gas is naturally occurring, yet quite dangerous. Radon is radioactive and is believed to cause more cases of lung cancer than anything besides smoking. In February 1998, the National Research Council (NRC) announced estimates that radon is responsible for as many as 21,800 of the 157,400 lung cancer deaths per year. Radon is a hidden threat, in part because it is odorless and colorless, but also because its presence in your home has no connection to things you might have brought into it. In addition, exposure to radon does not cause any acute symptoms, making it unlikely that it will be discovered unless a conscious effort is made. Fortunately, radon can be easily detected and steps can be taken to reduce levels if necessary. If you haven't already tested for radon, before your baby is born is a good time to do so, especially if you plan on living in the house for a long time. Early exposure to cancer-causing agents increases the risk of developing cancer.
Radon is a byproduct of the decay of uranium and radium, which occur in some soils and rocks. From soil, the gas seeps into basements through cracks in the foundation, where it can easily accumulate, especially in unventilated areas. As the gas decays, or breaks down, it releases charged particles that cling to dust and other materials. Both gasses and particles may rise to the living areas of the house. These particles produce high-energy radiation, called alpha particles, which, if inhaled, can cause damage to lung tissue and may lead to cancer. Smokers are at an even higher risk of developing lung cancer if they live in a radon-contaminated home. Nonsmokers are less likely to develop lung cancer, but still are at risk. NRC estimates that radon causes 2,100 to 2,900 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers per year. Reduction of radon in the home to below acceptable levels established by the EPA would decrease these deaths to about 1,000 a year.
High radon levels have been found in every state and every type of house, according to Consumer Reports, although some areas of the country are hot spots. The EPA estimates that about 6 million homes in the United States have radon concentrations above the recommended maximum of 4 picocuries per liter of air. Levels may vary considerably from house to house in a given neighborhood and even from day to day. For example, depressurization of your basement-due to wind, exhaust fans, or duct leakage-can cause radon to be sucked in and increase indoor radon levels. How your house is built can also have an impact on radon levels. Don't assume that because your neighbor's house is radon-free after testing that yours will be, too.
Testing for Radon
Testing for radon has become quite simple. You can hire a professional or use one of two types of do-it-yourself test kits. Short-term radon test kits are available at hardware stores and by mail order from Nontoxic Environments for $10 to $30. A short-term test kit is a charcoal-filled canister. You open up the canister, exposing the charcoal, and place in it the lowest level of your house, since that is where the greatest concentration would be. Over the course of two to seven days, the charcoal traps the radon. After the recommended period, reseal the canister and send it to the lab.
Since radon levels tend to fluctuate, long-term radon test kits give a more accurate picture of your radon exposure over time. The procedure used for these kits is roughly the same as for short-term tests, but instead of charcoal, long-term test kits use a specially formulated plastic that is imprinted with alpha particles emitted by radon as it decays. Usually, you must set these test kits out for three months or longer to get accurate results. A list of recommended test kits is located in Appendix B.
If test results indicate that the radon level in your home is above four picocuries per liter, it's best to have radon remediation done by professionals. There are three methods of reducing radon concentrations in a home. Dilution is simply ventilating the house either naturally by opening the windows (not necessarily energy-efficient depending on the time of year) or mechanically by using fans to increase the exchange of indoor and outdoor air. Sealing requires caulking cracks and filling gaps of any kind in basement walls, floors, and crawl spaces. It is usually difficult to seal most homes completely because most are not air tight. A better solution is diversion, using an exhaust fan that funnels radon-contaminated air from the basement and blows it into the atmosphere. Call your local board of health or state department of health for information and the National Safety Council Radon Hotline about radon testing and remediation. Hire only contractors who are certified by the EPA's Radon Contractor Proficiency Program and by your state. Remember to retest after the work has been completed.
Excerpted from: Guideto Natural Baby Care, by Mindy Pennybackerand Aisha Ikramuddin
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