January is National Radon Action Month, making it a great time to learn about the risks your family might be facing, how to test for radon and what to do if you find it in your home.

What is radon?

Radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless radioactive gas. It comes from soil during the decay process of uranium. Radon collects in areas where there’s space between your house and the soil. Air pressure draws it into your home — and into the air you and your family breathe.

What are the risks?

Because you can’t see or smell it, you don’t know when it’s in your home. Without realizing it, you could inhale the radioactive particles and damage the cells in your lungs. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers — killing 21,000 victims a year.

About one in every 15 homes in the United States has a radon level that’s too high, reports the Department of Health and Human Services.

The good news: According to the Minnesota Department of Health, “this risk should be entirely preventable through awareness and testing.”

How can you test it?

Testing the radon level in your home doesn’t have to be expensive or hard. You can buy an easy-to-use kit from most home improvement stores or online for $5 to $25. You can hire someone to do it for you; some states require those service providers to be registered or certified.

Two basic types of kits are available: short-term and long-term tests. The short-term test is a good way to start screening for radon in your home as it measures levels for 2 to 7 days. Long-term tests determine average concentration over at least 90 days.

Keep these things in mind when testing for radon in your home. 

  • Time of year: Radon is usually highest during the heating season. If performing a long-term test, you will want it to fall in both heating and non-heating seasons. 
  • Weather patterns: Avoid testing your home with a short-term test if there’s severe weather as this can throw off the air pressure, giving an inaccurate reading.
  • Test location: Test in the lowest level of your home that people spend time in since it’s closest to the soil and near the pathways where radon would be entering the home. 
  • Disturbances: Keep the kit somewhere it won’t be disturbed or subjected to heat or drafts because this could cause an inaccurate test.
  • Timeliness of analysis: Send your test to the lab on your packaging as soon as possible after the test has finished for the best results.

You have results, now what?

It depends whether the results are from the short-term or long-term test. But first, know that radon is measured in picocuries per liter or (pCi/L). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or more. Since no level of radon is safe, you may want to fix the issue if the results show any radon.

If a short-term test result is less than 2 pCi/L, consider performing a long-term test. If the results are between 2 and 8 pCi/L, definitely perform a long-term test.

If a long-term test result is 2 to 4 pCi/L, consider performing mitigation. Mitigation is strongly recommended for anything higher than 4.

What is mitigation?

Mitigation will require the work of a contractor and is the process of reducing radon concentrations in your home. There are various methods such as preventing radon entry, soil suction systems and reducing radon levels after they enter. The National Radon Proficiency Program and National Radon Safety Board have lists of qualified contractors.

An ongoing campaign

In 2008, EPA started a campaign “Radon: Test, Fix, Save a Life,” to encourage Americans to test and fix their homes for radon. The winning entry, “Eddie’s Story,” is now used to raise radon awareness and inform people of the dangerous health risks of radon. Here is the winning entry: 

Sydney is a self-proclaimed social media addict and a recent grad of the University of Georgia with a B.A. in Journalism. She spent two summers in New York interning with Cosmopolitan.com and iVillage, where one of her articles garnered the most traffic on the site. In her free time, when she’s not pinning DIY projects or fostering golden retrievers, she looks forward to Christmas so she can add to her 25 days of baking blog. Her favorite safety tip: Don’t text and drive — no text is worth it!