Radon is a risk in many homes
Smoke detectors. Life jackets. Stop, drop and roll. These and many other safety precautions often become second nature. Now health officials want to add another measure to that list - testing for radon.
A naturally occurring gas that comes from decaying radioactive materials in the soil, radon is especially prevalent in Minnesota due to the state's geological conditions, said Andrew Gilbert, a radon specialist at the Minnesota Department of Health.
"Minnesota is a very high radon state," he said. "It is one of the highest in terms of concentration [of radon]."
Goodhue County has especially high levels of radon -- about five times the national average, according to the MDH.
Radon is the second leading cause lung cancer, after smoking, and about 21,000 deaths per year are attributed to long-term exposure to the gas, Gilbert said.
Winter is the best time to test for radon because windows are rarely open and radon levels are likely to be at their highest, Gilbert said. This lets homeowners see what their maximum level of exposure could be.
The gas is tasteless, colorless and odorless, so it can only be detected by testing. State officials suggest Minnesotans test their homes for radon every two to five years.
Homeowners can purchase radon tests from hardware stores or from online sources such as mn.radon.com. Test costs can range from less than $10 to about $40.
Short-term tests take two to seven days and usually use a "passive" form of testing. This involves a charcoal kit that absorbs the radon and then is sent to a laboratory for level readings.
Short-term tests are the best first step, Gilbert said. "They give you a good idea of what you could be exposed to, and they're easy to do."
Long-term tests are also available, which measure radon levels for anywhere from three months up to a year. If short-term tests reveal high amounts of radon, these tests can give a better sense of levels after taking into account variables that can change the amount of radon present, including the temperature and weather conditions, Gilbert said.
If both tests come back with significantly high levels, radon mitigation systems can be installed. These are designed to vent the gas from below the building to above the roof without it passing through the inside.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 8 million homes nationwide have a radon problem, and the MDH estimates that about one in three homes in Minnesota have enough radon to pose a risk to occupants.