How to Defend Against Cancer-Causing Gas Found Under Your Home

Growing awareness of the health dangers of radon is one of the many factors driving demand for high-quality, high efficiency air filters. Although we’ve known for years that the air in our homes, offices, commercial spaces, and other high efficiency sites may contain allergens such as dust mites, pollen, mold spores, chemical fumes, and off-gassing from adhesives and machinery, radon has been more of a mystery.

Why High Efficiency Air Filters Are the Solution Against Radon Gas

“According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers,” said Camfil USA’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials for commercial air filters and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant. “In buildings proven to have a source of radon gas, ventilation and high efficiency air filters are used to remediate radon contamination.”

Statistics from the EPA point to radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer, responsible for more than 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year. Approximately 2,900 of those fatalities occur to people who have never smoked in their life. (1)

Protecting Against Radon Gas Using Commercial Air Filtration Systems

The good news is that excess radon gas is an issue addressed by commercial air filtration systems. But what exactly is radon?

Radon is an invisible, odorless, and tasteless gas that’s a byproduct of the breakdown of naturally-occurring uranium found in soil, rock, and water. Radon is everywhere—traces can be found outdoors and in all kinds of buildings. Since radon gas usually comes from pockets of soil underneath houses and buildings, there’s no way to predict whether it could be polluting your indoor air until you test for it.

The problem is that the EPA describes radon as a form of ionizing radiation—a known carcinogen.

“The EPA pegs the average indoor radon level at around 1.3 pCi/L, while outside air has an average radon level of around 0.4 pCi/L,” adds Seyffer. “It’s a disparity that has not only fueled demand for commercial air filtration systems, but it has also prompted Congress to set a long-term goal for reducing indoor radon levels to be no more than outdoor radon levels.”

On the other hand, buildings with a radon level of at least 4 pCi/L need immediate action because of the following:

  • At this level of radon exposure, the risk of occupants developing lung cancer compares to five times the risk of dying in a car crash.
  • If 1000 people who smoked were exposed to 4 pCi/L of radon throughout their lives, 62 of them could develop lung cancer.

How Are High Efficiency Air Filter Manufacturers Responding to the Radon Problem?

High efficiency air filter manufacturers have taken the lead in reducing high radon levels in indoor spaces.

One study, for example, sought to test two methods of radon removal through air filtration:

  • The first method used a common high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter
  • The second method used a HEPA filter plus an activated carbon filter

The results showed that both filtration methods were effective at lowering radon levels in indoor air.  Aside from removing the decay byproducts of radon, air filtration systems also capture airborne particulates that can complicate allergies, emissions from cleaning detergents, and a wide variety of chemical fumes. (2)

Although these solutions for controlling radon exposure exist, the installation of radon removal systems hasn’t caught on with the public. Many Americans make the mistake of assuming that just because the danger or action level for radon is 4 pCi/L, anything lower should be “safe.” This is an especially problematic assumption in the real estate market.

Risk management, however, should always be concerned with worst-case scenarios. And for the ordinary homeowner and building owner, the highest exposure to radon happens in below-grade spaces–rooms that are in contact with or below the ground such as basements and underground parking facilities.

Test for Radon Before Choosing from the Many Commercial HEPA Filter Air Purifiers on the Market

Before choosing from the many commercial HEPA filter air purifiers on the market, it’s important to determine whether your building’s occupants are actually at risk of radon exposure.

Both the EPA and the U.S. Surgeon General recommend radon testing in any room below the third floor—especially basements and crawl spaces—as well as:

  • Schools
  • Commercial establishments
  • Hospitals
  • Airports
  • Manufacturing and industrial  facilities

There are two primary testing methods for radon: short-term tests and long-term tests.

Short-term radon tests are the fastest way to identify if your building has high levels of radon, and are recommended by the EPA for the initial assessment of radon gas. These tests are performed using kits that remain in the building for two to 90 days, depending on the device used. Options include:

  • Charcoal canisters
  • Electret ion chambers
  • Continuous monitors
  • Charcoal liquid scintillators
  • Alpha track

The downside with short-term testing is that it usually can’t identify your year-round average radon level. This is because radon levels fluctuate daily and seasonally.

For long-term or comprehensive radon testing, you can get in touch with a service provider by looking up your state’s radon program. The EPA requires states receiving indoor radon grants to provide the public with a list of radon testing service providers who are accredited by:

  • A state-run program or process that regulates radon service providers
  • The National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP)
  • National Radon Safety Board (NRSB)

Combining Other Methods of Radon Removal with  HEPA Air Filters

Aside from the installation of HEPA air filters, there are several ways to mitigate the presence of radon gas in indoor spaces.

  • Active soil depressurization (ASD) – Also known as sub-slab depressurization, this method requires the installation of a simple system of underground pipes and an exhaust fan, which draws air from beneath the concrete floor/foundation, preventing the radon gas from dispersing inside the building.
  • Sealing walls and floors – Sealing cracks and openings on walls and floors is a basic and effective approach to radon control. Sealing limits the flow of radon into the building, and prevents indoor air (usually conditioned) from escaping.
  • Drainage systems – Buildings with sumps or French drains to control the flow of rainwater can be installed with a sump that collects radon from the soil. Alternatively, a separate hole can be used to accommodate the sump system.
  • Radon-resistant new construction (RRNC) – RRNC refers to a set of construction standards for builders designed to improve radon resistance through common construction materials and simple techniques.

A Final Note on Commercial HEPA Filters and Radon Removal

The basic function of commercial HEPA filters is to make the air inside indoor spaces cleaner and safer to breathe. But while air filtration systems, especially those that use a combination of a HEPA filter and activated carbon, are capable of removing traces of radon gas from the air, they are not recommended as a standalone solution against radon exposure.

As the EPA notes, source control and ventilation should always be the primary mitigation approach to controlling radon levels. In particular, the agency recommends active soil depressurization to safely vent radon gas outside, as well as passive solutions like radon-resistant new construction. When these methods are insufficient, or if an added layer of protection is desired, a commercial filtration system can be considered.

As one of the country’s leading high efficiency air filter manufacturers, Camfil USA is committed to helping people improve indoor air quality. To learn more about the benefits of air filtration for radon control, click here.

Lynne Laake

Camfil USA Air Filters

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