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Guest Editorial: Local homes and radon gas

Guest contributor

When Superman's wife, Dana Morosini Reeve, 44, died of lung cancer being a nonsmoker, you have to consider what may have caused this tragedy. Dana's Fox News death announcement mentioned radon as a possible cause. Then goes on to describe how 20 percent of women lung cancers are nonsmokers. This begs the question why?

About 18 years ago plus or minus, we were living off grid in Emma Park near the Carbon-Duchesne County line. One of the neighbors had been interested in mining. But rather than coal, his interest was in uranium. The geology here is very similar to Moab. He found or located a potential uranium claim. We formed a partnership; one neighbor provided a borrowed Geiger counter, another a bulldozer to blaze a trail and myself a backhoe to dig for a sample. The day this all came together the trusty five gallon bucket full of dirt and rock initially pegged the Geiger counter on its highest scale. Oh boy, were we happy. Out came the bottle(s) and the celebration of our pending wealth began. We were all much younger then. The eldest son of one of the neighbors showed up four or five hours later, out came the Geiger counter, but by then we were only reading half scale on the highest range. The next morning the trusty five gallon bucket of what was going to be our future wealth barely showed anything on the lowest, most accurate scale. Reality set in and then a serious look at the market in uranium. Further analysis of our trusty bucket turned out to be nothing more than just radon gas.

Just radon gas? Research begins; what is this and how much of a health hazard is this? What do you do? We here in Carbon County aren't all that far from Moab. If they can have uranium and radon (an out gasing from uranium ore very similar to methane released with the mining of coal) there, then look around here. The texture of the rock and the geology is painfully too similar. The Environmental Protection Agency's website on radon lists Carbon County as one of the highest risk areas in the state of Utah.

Early on I contacted a building inspector. My thinking is, if it has to do with building a residence then logically this would be a good start. I was more than a bit astounded when his reply was, "I don't know anything about radon gas. When you find out something thing come tell me." I did discover an office in Salt Lake City that deals with radioactivity. They had several brochures and pamphlets specifically addressing radon. And I studied these very closely.

On a national basis radon is found almost everywhere, some locations more so than others. To borrow a concept from the coal industry, radon like methane is "colorless, odorless and tasteless". Radon is detected if in quantity with a Geiger counter, more typically detected with a film test. The unexposed film, in a container like what is purchased for a camera, is placed typically in a crawl space. After a period of time, typically 30 days or 120 or 180 days the film is sent to a lab where it is developed. Then a technician examines the film for "tracking" and depending on the severity or quantity of radon issues a report.

Radon is referred to as soil gas because it enters a house from the ground or dirt underneath it. Radon is readily disposed of or gotten rid of. Radon in sunlight and in free air readily breaks down and is rendered and diluted to the point of not being a health hazard. The simplest correction or mitigation as officials like to phrase it is to simply ventilate. A house with crawl space, under most modern building codes, is required to have cross ventilation openings, sized proportional to the square footage being ventilated. The free movement of air under the occupied part of the house stops any buildup of radon getting into the home.

But what about houses with basements and no craw spaces or combinations of such? The soil gas mitigation people can come into a homes basement and conduct an under slab communication test. This is a fancy way of saying they are going to see if air can move or be made to move from one area of a basement floor under the slab to another area and then exhausted up and out of the house. Key entry points for radon gas is through a sump. Where I live, in the south end of Price near the river, most houses have a sump with a pump. Soil gas mitigation is to seal the lower portion of the sump and pump allowing the motor and piping to stand normally above the floor. Sealing is done with plastics, silicone adhesives, caulking and good old duct tape. Cracks in the floor are sealed as well as the floor to wall joints. Radon being a gas, the object is to get this seal as air tight as possible.

Does every home have a problem with radon? In a nutshell, the answer is no. Older homes were not built to the tightness standard of today's homes. When the house I'm writing this editorial from was built in the 1940's it was originally heated with stoker coal. Coal being relatively cheap, insulation and high quality windows were not a high priority. With the cost of today's heating bills, insulation and how tight a home is becomes a priority. This can also create an indoor pollution problem with radon gas being one of the possible culprits.

What is in the future for radon gas control? To start with, design mitigation into new construction. If one refers to the EPA's website, contractors can incorporate a soil gas system which is a sort of a leach field, in reverse under the house that is "stack vented" to above the roof line. People building homes should plan for and design equalizing piping, consider an air-to-air heat exchanger and maintain a slight positive pressure in the home which will keep the radon gas out.

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