Most of us in Great Britain find it hard to imagine that we could be living in a highly radioactive area. But for thousands of families, this could be the case. What's worse, we could be living with deadly radiation in our homes without even knowing it.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is all around us in the air we breathe. In most parts of the country, radon occurs outside at such low levels that we needn’t worry about it. This falls into the category of background radiation. It is diluted by fresh air so that the amount we are exposed to is, to all intents and purposes, insignificant.
But some parts of the country have higher levels of radon than others. These tend to be areas rich in granite, a type of rock which sometimes contains uranium. As uranium decays it releases radon: an invisible, tasteless, odourless and almost undetectable gas which can nevertheless cause damage to living tissue in animals and humans.
The greatest everyday radioactive risk to human beings is breathing in radon. When the radioactive elements in radon are inhaled, they can continue to decay and emit radiation from inside the lungs. The most dangerous kind of radiation comes in the form of alpha particles. These can be absorbed into the lung tissue, leading to lung cancer.
In the UK, Devon and Cornwall are most heavily affected by radiation due to the presence of igneous granite, but there are smaller radon hotspots all over the UK. In 2010, it was estimated that over 500,000 homes were at risk of radon contamination. When radon gets into your house it can build up, undetected, in confined spaces, until it reaches dangerous levels.
If you are concerned that your home may be at risk from radon, the first step is to get it tested. The most reliable way to do this is to buy a home measurement pack for around £50. If levels are found to be high, a sump or ventilation unit can help to improve air quality and reduce Radon to acceptable levels. The home measurement pack needs to be set up in your home for three months and then returned for analysis. The whole process should take around 4 to 5 months.
An alternative, which is more cost effective and quicker to carry out is to contact one of our local ventilation specialists who can carry out a free radon survey which involves placing a digital radon tester in the property for 7 days to get an accurate reading.
If at the end of this process it appears that you have been exposed to dangerous levels of radon in your home then there are steps that you can take. Some people recommend sealing up the spaces that radon can seep in through, such as cracks or gaps in the floor, loft and cellar hatches and so on. However, this is difficult to achieve and does not actually reduce existing radon levels. This may also lead to further environmental problems such as dry rot, occurring when the air is not able to freely circulate.
A more effective solution is to install a radon sump or to use some form of whole house ventilation. A radon sump is a pipe that runs from roof level to just below the floor within an external wall, through which radon should pass harmlessly out of your home. On its own, this is called a passive radon sump. Much more effective, however, is an active radon sump, which is powered by a small electric fan.
If the Radon gas levels are below 500 Bq m-3 a cost effective alternative is a positive input ventilation system which can bring fresh air into a home from a loft or central hallway location, efficiently diluting radon levels in the home.
It is advisable to have a qualified independent expert take a look at your home and advise you on the most effective course of action. Having an active radon sump or other forms of ventilation installed by an experienced professional will undoubtedly save money in the long run and will give you peace of mind in that the problem has been correctly dealt with.
Radon is thought to cause approximately 1,100 deaths every year from lung cancer. Existing smokers and those that have previously smoked are particularly at risk from high radon levels. Finding out if your home is likely to be at risk is the first step that you should take. Positive action can then be taken if necessary to counter the problem. The presence of an invisible deadly gas in your home is surely a frightening thought, but it need not be overwhelming. With a little help, you and your family can put radon safely back in the background.