Sevier County has high rate of radon

Jan. 31, 2013 @ 12:06 AM

In terms of health, January is notorious for influenza, but health officials want the public to be aware of a more subtle risk.

January is "Radon Action Month" in Tennessee, so named not because there are higher radon levels in January than other months of the year, but because cold temperatures create the ideal household situation to test for radon.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring gas that can seep into homes through cracks and openings, and according to Sevier County UT Extension Director Alan Bruhin, concentrated levels of radon can pose a significant threat to humans.

"When it gets enclosed into a house or area that the levels start to rise, then it becomes harmful," Bruhin said. "Once you inhale it, it's the second leading cause of lung cancer."

Bruhin said January is a good month to test for radon because people usually keep doors and windows closed. The cold air stays out, but the radon stays in, so it's easier to test for harmful levels.

"Probably close to 30 percent of the homes we've tested have come back with elevated levels of radon," Bruhin said. "That's a fairly high rate. It probably ranks right up there as high as any other place in the country."

According to radon test results from Air Chek, Inc., the average national indoor radon level 1.3 pCi/l (picocuries per liter, the most popular unit of measure for radon levels). The established "action level" for when you should take steps to mitigate radon in your home is 4.0 pCi/l. The average indoor radon level for Sevier County is 4.6 pCi/l, over three times the national average and above the "action level."

Most radon seeps into the home from the ground. It comes through the basement or cracks in slab concrete and continues to move upward. Bruhin said it's hard to prevent radon from entering the home, but he advised that everyone test their homes and take precautions to mitigate radon exposure if their radon level is high.

Short-term radon tests take approximately four days to complete. If the short-term test comes back and shows a high level of radon, the testing company will recommend either another short-term test or a long-term test.

"If levels stay high, then you're probably looking at some sort of mitigation to limit the radon," Bruhin said.

Bruhin said tests are available at hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot, and some pest control companies also provide testing and mitigation services.

"The radon mitigation systems we install are basically ventilation systems: They vent out gas before it enters the home," said Curt Drew, president of National Radon Defense, a company that installs radon mitigation systems in thousands of homes across North America each year.

The permanent radon mitigation systems usually take less than a day to install, and they begin working immediately. The price range is $1,000-2,000, but Drew said the mitigation systems are economical in the long-run.

"They are simple and economical to install, they start working right away, and they are guaranteed to drop radon levels dramatically," Drew said.

rhargett@themountainpress.com