Sniffing out radioactive gases in your kitchen & basement

Q: I heard that radioactive radon gas could be coming from my granite counters as well as my basement. Should I ­worry?

A: Last time we were fretting about this odourless, tasteless vapour en masse, you were probably rockin’ an A-ha/Tears for Fears mixed tape. But as quick as you can say jumpin’ Jack Flash, radon gas is back, and it’s freaking out homeowners continent-wide, especially those installing fancy stone slabs in their kitchens and bathrooms.

What the hell is radon anyway? It’s a gas that comes from decaying uranium in the soil and rock under your feet. Yep, uranium isn’t just found in massive deposits in northern Saskatche­wan; it’s scattered pretty much everywhere, just in smaller quantities. Outside, not a big deal, but trapped in your house? Well, it depends.

We all have a little gas floating around the recesses of our homes, especially the basement (it seeps up through cracks in concrete, basement drains and piping gaps). It’s just that some of us have more than others. And when we start bringing great hunks of rock into our pads to tart up our counters, we’re potential­ly carting in even more radiation.

One physics prof at Rice University in Houston found that all 55 granite slabs he sampled had higher-than-background levels of radiation. Most were still considered “safe,” but a few were 100 times above background! The worst offenders included striated granites from Brazil and Namibia.

But there are a whopping 1,600 varieties of granite on the market from 64 different countries. Even if 85 per cent are safe, as the Marble Institute of America points out, what about the rest? The only way to know whether your counters are hot is to get them tested. (FYI, the Marble Institute is supposedly setting up a testing protocol as we speak. Renovators should start pressing their suppliers for certified proof that their slab isn’t hot.)

If I found high levels, personally, I’d rip it out. Better safe than sorry. Still, in a well-ventilated kitchen, you’re generally exposed to less ra­don and radiation than many basement dwellers.

Since last year, when Health Ca­na­da finally boosted its safety stan­dards to bring them closer to the U.S.’s (yes, they’re still ahead of us on this one), more homes have fallen into HC’s “action needed” zone (200 Bq/m³ vs. 150 in the U.S.). According to Mr. Radon himself, Bob Wood (one of the province’s only certified radon home inspectors and mitigation experts), one in eight of the GTA homes his company has tested exceeds those levels (see mr-radon.ca). No way to know if your home is gassy but to test it.

The biggest problem is that the gas decays and produces solid radioactive particles called “radon daughters” – or, since women’s libbers cleaned up the dictionary, “radon progeny.” Inhale these and they em­bed themselves in your lung tissue. When these devilish offspring in turn start decaying, they emit a little radiation into your lungs.

Just last week, Danish researchers released a study linking homes high in radon to acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children. Radon is also the second-biggest cause of lung can­­cer, next to sucking on nicotine, with radon killing over 22,000 every year in North America.

And if you’re a pack-a-dayer living in a radon-heavy basement apartment with poor ventilation? Let’s just say you might want to take out some life insurance. You know, for the sake of the family. Or try something less morbid, like, I don’t know, maybe quitting smoking? Easier still, reduce your radon exposure.

First of all, if you’ve bought one of those home radon testing kits (from Zellers or Mr. Radon) and found radon below the action level, there are a couple DIY remedies you can take on. Open windows whenever you can. Seal cracks in the foundation or at wall/slab joints. Seal raw cement floors with low-VOC epoxy paint. Track down openings around pipes and cables.

The Radiation Safety Institute of Canada also says you should make sure there’s water in the floor drain at all times and that any sump is covered and vented to the outside.

But really, if you turn up a readings of 200 (or even 150, if you follow the U.S. standard), you’ll need to call in a pro for remediation. Depressurizing the soil under your house and venting it to the outside should set you back $2,000. Renters stuck with high levels and cheap landlords can call the Board of Health on their ass.

Ecoholic: Sniffing out radioactive gases in your kitchen & basement
Adria Vasil
NOW July 30-August 6, 2008 VOL 27 NO 48
Got a question? Send your green queries to ecoholic@nowtoronto.com