A silent danger: In Minnesota, about one in three homes pose health risks
A few months after moving into their Olivia home, Neil and Jackie Kaufenberg learned that one of their neighbors had found above-average levels of radon in her house. Curious, they decided to purchase a home test from Menards and check their own house for radon, unsure of what they would discover.
What they found was shocking: In their basement, the radon level was around 30 pCi/L (picocuries per liter). On the main level of the house, it was between 10 to 15 pCi/L. The average recommended safety level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is between 2 and 4 pCi/L.
"We had just bought this home about six months earlier, and we had a 2-year-old and another baby on the way," Jackie Kaufenberg said. "It made me really uncomfortable to play in the basement when I knew what was down there. We knew we had to get it fixed. As we learned more about radon and its effects, we got increasingly concerned for our family's well-being in the house."
When left untreated, radon can cause serious and lasting health concerns. According to the EPA, exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking. Each year, radon accounts for about 20,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States.
In Minnesota, it's estimated that about one in three homes has a high enough level of radon to pose health risks, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Factors that contribute to this high rate include Minnesota's geology and climate. Randy Sather, residential sales representative at Chappell Central in Willmar, said that radon is a common problem he sees when he inspects homes in the area for air quality.
"We have among the highest levels of radon in the state," Sather said. "I would say the majority of houses we test have some form of radon. Some are easier fixed than others."
According to Sather, radon, which originates in soil, can enter homes in any number of ways. Typically, it comes through cracks or openings in walls or floors, but it can also come from heated air rising; fireplaces, wood stoves or furnaces; clothes dryers; or exhaust fans in kitchens or bathrooms.
There are two ways that Chappell Central eliminates radon from homes, Sather said. If the house has a radon level under 10 pCi/L, they usually recommend an air exchange unit. This device ventilates the home, exhausting air from the inside and bringing in fresh air from the outside.
If the level of radon is above 10 pCi/L, Chappell Central usually installs a subfloor ventilation system with an inline fan, Sather said. This method works similar to a vacuum, sucking the radon out and ventilating it outside of the house, causing it to dissipate in the air. The fan is usually installed under a slab of cement in a basement or in an attic.
After discovering a 30 pCi/L level of radon in her basement, Jackie Kaufenberg hired a professional to install one of these subfloor radon mitigation systems. "Basically, it vented the radon up and out of our home," she said.
Although Kaufenberg said her family never experienced any adverse health effects from the high level of radon in their home, it gives her reassurance to know that it's now at a safe level, around 2.2 pCi/L.
"We never had any symptoms from living with the radon, especially since it was just a short time that we lived there before we noticed it," she said. "But the most important part for us was peace of mind, knowing that we were keeping our family safe, and that we could hang out in the basement without the long-term effects of radon being in the back of our mind."
This month is National Radon Action Month, and Sather said Chappell Central is working hard to relay the message that everyone should have their homes tested for radon, and the sooner the better.
"Some people genuinely don't want to know if it's there, but even if you don't like what you find out, at least you'll be aware and can take steps to fix the problem," Sather said. "Think of it this way: You can easily make a comparison between carbon monoxide and radon. The only difference is time. One of them will kill you quickly, while the other is a longer, slower death."