Environment, Science

This Is Breathing Easier

This summer we encountered a situation that was creepy and unnerving, and hardly expected. The house we were living in was on top of a radioactive site.

Well, that may be exaggerating a bit. Not a Chernobyl, for instance. But nevertheless, we were surprised to find that about one quarter of the homes in our neighborhood are subject to potentially deadly radon gas.

We bought our house over thirty years ago, and have loved its layout, design and location. It is a beautiful home. Coming from Ontario, we were a little surprised to find that our prized ranch did not have a full basement, but rather a large crawlspace adjacent to a subterranean room which serves as the ‘real’ basement. In fact, that smaller-sized basement has discouraged us from stowing thirty years of accumulated unnecessary stuff.

The crawlspace now sealed under 6mil plastic sheeting

But the crawlspace– it runs under two-thirds of our home. It is high enough to allow one to crab about on all fours, with easy head room. The expanse of it is covered with about 4-6 inches of pea gravel. Under that is a thin plastic sheet to keep out the moisture from below.

When we closed on the house, a necessary radon inspection was performed in the basement. This was a foreign concept to us, but, hey, we’re from out of town. The fellow used a sniffer geiger counter of some sort, and observed, “Oh, it’s a little high, but no big deal.” The real estate agent was quick to agree, and encouraged us to close the deal. We loved the house, and we closed. Commissions were earned.

Flash forward to 2022. Our county health department advertised the availability of do-it-yourself radon test kits. Since we had been conditioned to COVID self-testing, the radon kit was easily understood, and after all, what can it hurt?

So, we tested. The numbers came back in a few days by email, in RED block letters, citing unacceptable ratings. Like three times higher than barely acceptable. Wow! The stuff was collecting in the basement, but worse, settled nicely in our bedroom and family room where we spent more than a third of our lives.

Drilling below the basement

It was time to check out radon, and understand what the big kerfuffle was about. Information is easily found online, and we read that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer. The numbers are confusing, but bottom line, radon causes about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year according to the EPA and 2,900 of those are in non-smokers.

Who knew?

Radon is an inert, noble gas. Its cousins are helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and oganesson. They are called “noble” because they don’t react or bond with other elements easily. Stand-offish you might say. Nevertheless, they do have their value: helium is perfect for balloons and making squeaky voices. Neon gives us every flashy sign we ever saw, and is at the core of every country song. Krypton is used in fluorescent lights, and as the fabled home planet of Superman. Xenon also is used in lighting. Radon is actually used in cancer therapy. It is the result of radium, uranium and thorium decay, and is found in well water, rainwater and in the ground. It has a half life of about 4 days, so it does diminish in potency. It is also heavy, so tends to stay low, like in our basement. You can imagine how impressed we were to have that radon bubbling up in our living space.

The vacuum pump and exhaust pipe

Consulting the county health department’s website, it turns out that 24% of the homes tested in our county have unacceptable radon ratings. Virtually one in four. Really.


We felt it was worth our while to eliminate the threat. We hired a radon mitigation team to seal up our basement. The solution was low-tech, but required some physical effort. Two contractors came in from Wisconsin, and laid perforated PVC piping across the floor of our crawlspace. The entire crawlspace was then sealed under a thick sheet of plastic film. Then the piping was connected to a vacuum pump that sucked the air out of the ground beneath the sheet, and vented it outside. A second pipe was also punched through the concrete floor of our basement, and connected to the vacuum. The installers turned on the pump, and within a week, the radon rating plummeted to a safe level.

Is the threat significant? Depends upon your state of mind. One thing’s for sure, if you intend to sell your home, it will probably include a radon inspection, at which time you might have a 24% chance of losing the sale as panicky buyers run out of the house.

For all the information on radon, here’s a website that may help you: https://www.epa.gov/radon. And for a closer look at your state and county, try this: https://state-radon.info.