Jefferson County radon levels high
FAIRFIELD — The Jefferson County Environmental Health Department found an elevated level of radon in half of the test kits it gave away earlier this year.
The department distributed 125 free radon test kits to county residents in January. Of the 123 results the department received, 51 percent were at or above the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 4 picocuries per liter of air, meaning those residents should take steps to abate the radon in their homes.
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking in the United States.
Jefferson County Environmental Health director Dan Miller said Iowans must be especially alert for radon in their homes. The state has the highest percentage of homes above the EPA’s action level of any in the nation.
Radon is a cancer-causing, colorless and odorless naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in the soil. States in the northern part of the country tend to have higher radon levels than southern states because of the uranium deposits the glacier left behind in the northern states when it receded thousands of years ago.
Radon enters buildings through cracks in solid floors, construction joints, gaps in suspended floors and gaps around service pipes. The only way to detect its presence is to test for it, because it cannot be seen or smelled. The EPA and the Surgeon General recommend testing all homes below the third floor for radon.
Miller said although the prevalence of radon is tied to the soil the house is built upon, the concentration of radon has more to do with features of the home and not the neighborhood.
He mentioned a house with low radon levels could easily be adjacent to a home with high radon levels.
The environmental health department hopes to receive a grant or donation to finance another round of radon test kits in January. If the grant comes through, the department can once again provide free radon test kits to the residents of Jefferson County during Radon Action Month.
The Iowa Department of Public Health recommends building homes using radon-resistant construction techniques. However, it suggests even homes built using these techniques should still be tested after occupancy. If high levels of radon are found, meaning in excess of 4 picocuries per liter, a qualified expert in radon mitigation should be called to install a ventilation fan.
Radon can be tested using a short-term testing technique of only a few days or a long-term testing technique lasting more than 90 days. Jefferson County residents partook of the short-term testing, which lasted three to seven days.
In the short-term testing technique, the windows and doors of the home should be kept closed as much as possible, while fans that bring in air from the outside should be turned off.
Once the testing is done, the kit should be resealed and the package sent to a lab immediately for analysis. Since radon levels can vary throughout the year, long-term tests are a better indicator of the average radon level in a home.
Miller said radon tests are done in the winter because that is when radon levels tend to be at their peak. Heated homes draw air in from the soil, radon and all. Additionally, windows are rarely open in the winter, which provides a perfect environment in which radon gas can become concentrated.
After receiving the results from the radon testing in the winter, Miller spent the spring educating local schools and colleges about the danger of radon and how to mitigate it. He said more and more people are aware of radon, but plenty of work remains to be done. After all, he said, the gas is colorless and odorless, so for most people it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”
“If you smell gas, you get alarmed and you do something about it,” he said. “If your [carbon monoxide] meter goes off, you do something about it.”
By contrast, no alarms exist for radon, and the only way to know it’s in the house is to test for it.
Miller said he wouldn’t know until November or December if he has received another grant for radon test kits from the Iowa Department of Public Health. This year, Jefferson County was one of only 12 counties to receive the radon grant.