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Faith in Vermont: Radon -- It's a Gas!

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Posted on January 13, 2015 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Like most parents of young children, my husband and I block out the days between Christmas and New Year's Day -- dates that correspond roughly with the school winter vacation. During this two week period, we set aside our to-do lists, check email less frequently, and abandon our typical schedule in order to devote ourselves to more sacred pursuits, like celebrating the birth of Jesus, decorating candy canes to look like reindeer, and breaking up sibling quarrels that erupt every five minutes over nothing at all.

I never return to my to-do list so enthusiastically as when school resumes after the holidays. Buoyed along by the fresh energy of the New Year, I'm ready to accomplish things that have nothing to do with whether the Calico Critters are distributed justly. Rarely am I so content to stay indoors and catch up on correspondence, tackle home improvement projects, and cook gallons of soup.

This year, my husband wanted to tackle something that's been on his to-do list since 2011: He wanted to fight radon.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of making radon's acquaintance, it's a radioactive gas. It's invisible, odorless, and tasteless. According to the Surgeon General, it's the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States (smoking is the first). Radon from the soil enters homes through holes and cracks, then gets trapped inside and builds up. For that reason, radon tests are always part of home inspections when buying a house.

The EPA recommends that radon levels not exceed 4 piC/L. Remember that number. The average level of radon in U.S. homes is 1.3 piC/L. When we were in the process of buying our current house, the home inspection revealed radon levels of 180 piC/L. Thankfully, even radon levels that high are fairly easy to mitigate; the previous owners installed a system that quickly brought the radon levels down to the acceptable limit.

The acceptable limit wasn't quite low enough for my husband. This might surprise those who know him; my husband is clearly the most laid-back, least neurotic member of our family. Except when it comes to the health and well being of his family, it turns out. While I embrace a more "what doesn't kill them will make them stronger" approach to our daughters, my husband slathers them with sunscreen (I've had to stop him from rubbing pure zinc oxide into their hair), keeps them in rear-facing carseats until their legs are so scrunched that their knees touch their chins, and will never, never, NEVER give up his quest to get radon levels in our house down to zero.

I don't worry much about radon. I figure it takes years of high exposure before radon kills you, and so long as the level remains at 4 piC/L or lower, the worst lifetime risk of lung cancer death is somewhere around 2%. I have more pressing concerns right now, like who deserves to play with the Twilight Sparkle Little Pony. It's easy to forget about air.

Radon is an air problem. Here's how it works: Our house sits on a rocky ridge at the foot of the Green Mountains, a combination of Precambrian basement rocks, schists, and shelf sediments left behind when glacial ice melted about 12,000 years ago.  This rock makes our yard great for climbing, and horrible for gardening. The natural breakdown of uranium in the rocky soil around our house releases radon gas. For obvious reasons, the highest concentration of radon is typically in basements, since they're built underground; the higher you go in a multi-level house, the lower the radon levels. This is because the air disperses as it moves up. So, the key to lowering radon levels is to move the air in your house.

Our house's radon system is basically a pipe inserted into the basement floor. Radon from the ground enters the pipe, where a fan blows it out of the basement and into the air. This works fine most of the year, but a radon monitor that my husband put in our basement revealed that our radon levels start soaring above 4 during the winter. In winter, the temperature differential between the frigid outdoor air and the warm indoor air sucks more air -- and more radon -- into the house. This is a problem when you live in Vermont.

My husband's first line of attack was to install an indoor air exchange: a big fan that sucks in outdoor air and uses it to dilute our indoor air Keeping that air moving helped lower the radon levels in our basement.

Not one to assume victory, my husband turned his attention to the back room of our house -- an addition built on a slab, not over the basement. This means that the rear of our house, though it sits above the ground, is effectively a basement as far as radon is concerned. My husband installed a radon monitor and found that gas levels in this part of the house climb to 5 and higher during the winter.

This part of the house is where our girls keep their dollhouse, their play kitchen, their craft supplies. It's where I write this column, on an extension of the kitchen counter.

So, 2015 finds my husband pondering whether to tunnel though 20 feet of bedrock in order to extend our current radon system to the rear of the house, or just install some fans, or to install a separate system all together.

I keep quiet and think, If radon doesn't get us, high fructose corn syrup will.

But I can sympathize with the lengths to which we'll go for our children. Our five-year-old, who's always loved animals and dreamed about living on a horse farm with assorted dogs and livestock, just joined Cloverbuds, the junior version of 4-H. So I've been staring with dissatisfaction at our rocky, wooded backyard: If she wants to raise a sheep to show at Field Days in three years, she'll never be able to do it here. Rather than consider the logical solution -- she could lease a sheep from a local farmer, should she care to in three years -- I've found myself searching the real estate listings, looking for places with double-digit acreage and outbuildings. I'll plant a vegetable garden and we'll keep some animals, I dream, with no basis in reality.

Because in order to move, we'd have to sell our current house, and I've just made public that we have a radon problem. So, if you're reading this in the future while considering purchasing our house: No worries; my husband has it covered. Maybe we'll even throw in some wool from my daughter's sheep to sweeten the deal.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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