Nebraska near top on national radon list


Radon is everywhere, under every home in every neighborhood in every community.

The colorless and odorless radioactive gas - the No. 2 overall cause of lung cancer deaths and the top lung-cancer killer of non-smokers - seeps into all homes. The environmental toxin, however, can pose a health danger in one home while the home across the street has an acceptable gas level.

Sara Morgan, indoor quality program manager with the Nebraska Health and Human Services System, said Radon levels can't be predicted between homes right next door to each other in the same neighborhood. There is no correlation between radon levels and house age, she said.

Nebraska is the No. 3 state in the nation with the potential for high radon levels, with the eastern third of the state the most vulnerable. Iowa is the No. 1 state with the potential for high radon levels.

Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the natural decaying process of uranium that is found in nearly all soils and also in rock and water.

The gas typically moves up through the ground to the air above, to the air people breathe in their homes. Homes can limit the radon movement from ground to air. Since radon is a gas contained in the air, it can get into a building and remain trapped inside, where it can build up.

The gas moves up through the ground and enters the home through cracks or gaps in the foundation or basement floor, Morgan said. It doesn't matter if the basement is finished or unfinished, she said.

After the radon-filled air is in the home, people breathe it in. The gas then releases radioactive particles in the lungs, which are a very vulnerable part of the body, and damages cells that potentially can become cancerous.

Your chances of getting lung cancer from radon depend mostly on how much radon is in the home, home much time is spent in the home and whether you are a smoker or have ever smoked. The gas doesn't cause coughing, sneezing or skin cancers.

The good news is that it is easy to test for the gas and anybody can do it, Morgan said. "The only way to know if there is a radon problem is to test."

There are two types of test kits for radon, short- and long-term. Short-term test kits are place in a home or work environment for 48-72 hours. Long-term test kits are used when the results of short-term are known to be high. The kits are then mailed to a lab, which will provide results measuring the gas level and whether it is safe or dangerous.

"Kits should be placed in a home based on usage, where people spend the most time,'' Morgan said. Winter is the ideal time to do it because windows are closed, which provides the environment for a gas buildup, she said.

Opening windows to improve ventilation and prevent a gas level buildup will lower the risk, but is impractical in a state like Nebraska where windows can be left open about four months a year, Morgan said.

Systems have been developed to lower radon levels. On an existing home, an exhaust system is installed that pipes the gas from the soil below the foundation to ground level, where the pipe goes through the wall and up the side of the building before expelling the gas at roof level. At roof level, a fan that runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day vents the gas through the pipe. The cost can range from $1,000-$2,000.

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