For Your January To-Do List: Radon Testing

Growing up in central New Jersey, I’ve heard about radon but never gave it too much thought. The word is part of my background—like Superfund, Brownfield and asbestos—that comes with being a native of my beloved but environmentally beleaguered state.

While researching healthy home ideas, I discovered that January is National Radon Awareness Month and that a simple test can tell me whether my home has elevated radon levels. I was even happier to find out that the West Orange Health Department offers free testing kits and information to West Orange homeowners.

“There are health risks associated with radon, so it is beneficial to know if it’s in your home because there are things you can do,” said Theresa DeNova, West Orange Health Officer.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, which has always been a part of the bedrock under New Jersey, DeNova told me. The invisible and odorless gas moves up through soil and can enter homes through foundation cracks and openings around pipes and drains.

The NJ DEP website explains that radon in the home presents health risks associated with lung cancer. The tiny radioactive particles can be inhaled and become trapped in the lungs, increasing the risk of developing lung cancer.

The site also has a fact sheet about radon exposure health risks and deaths. It says that, in New Jersey, of the annual 4,700 lung cancer deaths, as many as 140-250 may be associated with radon exposure. The risks are greater for smokers than non-smokers but both are affected.

The free radon testing kits—including processing and mailing—are made possible through West Orange’s cooperation with the Radon Awareness Program (RAP). RAP is a joint initiative of the Essex County Cancer Coalition (ECCC), the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

I picked up my test kit at the health department office. The instructions told me to open the small round metal container and place it in the lowest livable area, which in my case means the basement. After two to four days, I’ll seal up the container and mail it for processing in the postage-paid envelope provided. (Update: The test results were normal.)

As well as occurring naturally, radon contamination can also come from industrial sites. DeNova told me that she has been involved with radon since 1984, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remediated a former radium-processing site on the border between West Orange and Montclair.

West Orange is in the “moderate potential” range for elevated indoor radon levels, according to the EPA. Since The chance that any particular home has elevated levels of radon can be estimated, but the only way to know for sure is testing.

Radon is calculated in a measurement called a picoCurie per liter of air, abbreviated to pCi/L. The average U.S. indoor level is 1.3 pCi/L. Federal agencies recommend acting if a home’s radon level is greater than 4 pCi/L.

If  test results come back indicating a elevated radon levels, the issue can be taken care of with fixes like sealing foundation cracks or installing a fan.

For homeowners who do not wish to participate in the RAP program, the offers website offers a list of state-certified companies that provide testing services and do-it-yourself kits as well as vendors who can help lower the amount of radon in your home.