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There's No Better Time to Clear the Air

Date Published: 11/28/2020 [Source]

Think about the phrase "air pollution." Are you picturing black plumes curling out of factory smokestacks and the tailpipes of idling vehicles? Something to worry about outdoors, that is, not inside your home? Not so fast: Air pollutants could be within your own walls too, seeping from your furnace, your basement, even that new couch, and their threats range from eye irritation to an increased risk of cancer, and maybe even death.

Don't panic (really). Once you recognize the threats, you can often clean up the air in your home without too much trouble. And as we head into a winter where the pandemic may force us to be at home more than ever, now is a good time to make sure your everyday air is as clean as possible.

Radon In vast swathes of the country, everyday rocks like granite and shale hold deposits of uranium, thorium and radium under the soil. These deposits silently decay into radon, an odorless gas that can seep into homes via minuscule cracks in foundations and floors. Inhaling it (technically, inhaling the radioactive particles that radon produces in the decay process) damages the lungs. After smoking cigarettes, radon exposure is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

Homes in some parts of the country, like the Rocky Mountain West, the Midwest and the Appalachians, have a particularly high risk of radon problems from the underlying geology. But because of quirks in minerals and soils nationwide, "radon is everywhere," said Bruce Snead, director of the National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University. "The only way to know the level anywhere is to test for it."

Fortunately, that's not hard to do: Start with a short-term test, available at hardware and home-improvement stores, which takes three to seven days and provides a snapshot of fluctuating radon levels. You want an average of less than 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), which is 10 times the average outdoor background radon. If the first test comes in higher than that, it's time to look into mitigation. If not, it's still worth following up with a long-term test (90 days to one year) to make sure you're in the safe zone over time.

Worrisome levels of radon should be dealt with swiftly by calling a mitigation professional. Depending on your home style and the soil underneath it, a pro will install some kind of underground suction-and-fan system to suck radon away from your home, and vent it to be diffused in the outdoor air. Costs range from $750 to $4,000, Snead said, and "99 percent of the time will get the house down below 4 pCi/L, and many times below 2 pCi/L."

The simpler answer: "Increase fresh air exchange whatever way you can," Dr. Chang said. "If it's feasible, open the windows, even for a short amount of time." Adding a few gusts of outdoor air every day will dilute any air pollutant in your home and is an easy, effective step to take during the long indoor season to come.