Radon gas is a silent killer in some Chicago-area homes

This story originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Chicago Parent.

When Laverne and Steve Street bought their Glen Ellyn home in 2006, their Realtor told them not to worry about radon, a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that seeps into homes through cracks in the foundation.

Once inside, the gas builds up and becomes hazardous to breathe: it’s the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, claiming nearly 20,000 lives annually. While the Environmental Protection Agency considers the near Chicago counties at a moderate risk for radon, 42 percent of homes tested throughout Illinois showed dangerously elevated levels.

Nine times denser than air, radon settles to the lowest part of your home, usually the basement. The Streets planned to use theirs as a play area for their children. So in September 2007, they bought a hardware store test kit and discovered a radon level of 5.7 picoCuries per liters of air. The EPA considers anything above 4 pCi/L a definite health risk, but urges homeowners to install a radon mitigation system in levels above 2 pCi/L.

The byproduct of decaying uranium, the average radon reading outdoors is point 7 pCi/L.

While studies have not shown children at a greater risk for radon exposure, its cumulative affects should worry parents. “It’s more about higher levels for longer periods of time that’s the concern,” says Dr. D. Kyle Hogarth, who specializes in the prevention and diagnosis of lung cancer at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “It is one of those components of making sure you are doing what you can to minimize exposure to your kids, along with the other things such as smoking avoidance.”

Home sellers must disclose known radon, but they aren’t required to test. So Realtor Marina Burman of Jean Wright Real Estate in Winnetka encourages home buyers to test for radon. “They don’t have to, but it’s the best (money) they’ll ever spend,” she says.

During real estate transactions, only tests conducted by licensed radon testers are valid. A home buyer’s expense, a professional radon test lasts 48 hours and costs about $225.

Radon in all homes

Regardless of a home’s age, it has radon to some degree. “There’s no direct correlation between the age of the home and radon levels,” says Hy Naiditch, CRI, president of ACCUspect Home Inspection Services in Skokie. While most home buyers conduct a basic home inspection, Naiditch says only 15 percent of his clients request a radon test. “One of the biggest misperceptions is that this area doesn’t have radon. You can have two side by side houses (with different readings),” he says.

With borderline readings Naiditch recommends retesting for peace of mind or conducting a long-term test, which lasts 90 days, at a later date. Though it won’t fall in the timeframe of a typical real estate transaction, a long-term test gives the most accurate reading available.

If you have high levels, a radon mitigation contractor licensed by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency can install a sub-slab depressurization system to bring your indoor air quality back to healthy levels. Ranging from $900 to $2,500, the system uses a PVC pipe drilled into your foundation and a continuously operating fan to suck and vent the radon beneath your home outside, above the eaves. During a real estate deal, the cost to mitigate falls to the home seller.

Start with DIY

Do-it-yourself homeowners can first try sealing off any entry points, such as floor drains and sump pumps. “It’s very tough to get every little crack because it’s a gas and can easily go around those sealed points. You can do it to your best ability. But ultimately, if the levels get high enough, you’re going to have to mitigate,” says Eric Lewencowski, owner of Professional Radon Systems in Aurora. “The only way to get rid of it is to vent it.”

Lewencowski says his company strives to get the radon as close to outdoor levels as possible, and like all mitigation companies guarantees that radon levels will never exceed 4 picoCuries. The EPA recommends you retest your home every two years, or after home renovations, such as a basement remodel or new addition. A side benefit to a mitigation system: it also removes moisture that causes mold and mildew.

Finding out your home has radon doesn’t decrease its value, says Burman, a certified real estate appraiser. “Years ago if a house tested positive for radon, typically the deal would fall apart because people would be so freaked out,” she says “Now Realtors are educating their buyers and it’s not a reason for a deal to fall apart because it’s so easily fixed.”

Today the Streets breathe easy. After installing a mitigation system, their radon reading is just point 1. “The fact that I could eliminate one proven cause of a cancer was all I needed to know,” says Laverne Street.

Rita Colorito, a freelance writer specializing in home, health and parenting, lives in Glen Ellyn.

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