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It's a lethal gas

News editor

More than a quarter of Marion County homes could be ticking time bombs for those who live in them, harboring unhealthy levels of radon gas — the No. 1 cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

Radon, produced from the decay of uranium found in soils, is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. It seeps up through the ground and enters homes through cracks and crevices, and in sufficient quantities presents a serious health hazard.

Kansas Radon Program data indicate average radon levels in Marion County, 5.4 picocuries of radon per liter of indoor air, are higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 4.0 pCi/L. Elevated radon levels pose a health hazard for all, more so for children and smokers, if steps aren’t taken to reduce them.

The only way to discover radon gas is to test for it. Just looking at a house or where it’s located doesn’t work.

“I’ve tested houses next door to each other and there’s been high and low,” Gary Boesker said. “Even on the same duplex, the same footprint, you can’t predict it. Not everything is easy and assumable with radon, because there’s so many variables with each home.”

Boesker, of Canton, is the closest state-certified radon inspector to Marion County. He also is president of the Heartland Chapter of American Association of Radon Scientists and Technicians.

Boesker said geology plays a big part in elevated radon levels.

“We find significant amounts of gas in Marion County because of the rock structure,” he said. “We put these houses where the rocks are. Radon has the ability to travel between the fissures. You park your house right in that, and you have an effective radon collector.”

The highest reading Boesker has found in Marion County was in a house in Florence, where radon levels were more than 15 times higher than the EPA baseline.

Do-it-yourself test kits are available through the county extension office and local hardware stores, and Boesker said homeowners risk getting false readings, high or low, if they don’t follow the instructions to the letter.

“They can get a low reading just because they did it wrong,” he said. “I’ve seen them where they haven’t been sealed up and air gets in. I don’t use packaged devices because of moisture and things.”

Professionals such as Boesker use more sophisticated equipment to perform short- or long-term tests for radon.

Short-term tests last 48 hours. Boesker uses a continuous radon monitor to take hourly samples of air quality, as well as barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, all of which can affect radon concentrations.

“There are certain times we don’t test,” he said. “We don’t test in moisture events or sustained winds of 30 mph or more.”

High winds decrease pressure and act like a vacuum to increase the flow of radon gas up through crevices, he said.

“All of the ground is belching its air,” Boesker said. “You burp the ground during a barometric pressure drop.”

Short tests are generally as accurate as the 91-day long-term test, Boesker said.

If a home has elevated levels of radon gas, a variety of fixes are available, and would be tailored for the specific characteristics of the house and source of exposure. Remediation systems typically cost between $500 and $2,000, Boesker said.

A complete list of certified radon inspectors and remediation specialists can be found at http://www.kansasradonprogram.org.

Last modified Jan. 21, 2016

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