Published 1 January 2024
For two weeks straight, Stanley Watras set off the radiation alarms as he entered his workplace at the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. Authorities at the plant were stunned to learn that the source of the radiation was astoundingly high levels of radon gas in the basement of the Watras family home and not from the nuclear plant itself. That was in 1984.
Since then, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Surgeon General have determined that exposure to radon gas is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
Radon, which has been found in all 50 states, is a naturally occurring radioactive gas released in rock, soil and water caused by the natural decay of uranium. Radon typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into homes through cracks and other holes in the foundation. It can also be introduced in small amounts through well water from private wells. The gas is released into the air when the water is used for showering and other household uses.
The EPA assigns one of three “zones” to each of the 3,142 counties or county-equivalents in the U.S., rating the average short-term radon measurement that can be expected in a building without the implementation of radon control methods. Zones are assigned numerical ratings of one, two or three, indicating whether the designated areas are areas of “high” (1), “moderate” (2) or “low” (3) risk.
According to EPA’s Map of Radon Zones, all 33 New Mexico counties are in areas of risk. Twenty-six of the counties are in zone two, rated as moderate. The remaining seven counties carry zone-one ratings, which pose a high risk of experiencing radon emissions. All seven high-risk counties, which include San Juan, Rio Arriba, Taos, Colfax, Los Alamos, Mora, Bernalillo, Santa Fe and San Miguel, are located in the northern-third of the state. Doña Ana County is designated as having moderate levels of radon emissions.
As part of the EPA’s National Radon Action Month activities, homeowners and prospective purchasers are encouraged to test for radon by conducting an easy and inexpensive do-it-yourself test. The New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) has free radon test kits available for people who share their test results with the department and participate in a statewide radon survey. Residents can also purchase test kits for less than $25 at local hardware and home improvement stores. The price of the test typically includes the cost of a mail-in laboratory analysis by an EPA-approved lab.
If elevated radon levels are present, simple abatement solutions for the average home can be employed at a cost of about $800 to $2,500, with $1,200 being the nationwide average, according to the EPA. A popular remedy for preventing the gas from entering the home includes the sealing of cracks and other openings in foundations along with the utilization of a system with pipes and fans called “subslab depressurization.” The remedy prevents radon from entering the house by rerouting to the outside atmosphere gasses that would normally radiate into the structure from beneath the slab.
A Las Cruces couple living in the Soledad Canyon area recently tested their home and found elevated levels of radon exceeding 11.5 picocuries per liter of air. “The EPA recommends homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) or more. Because there is no known safe level of exposure to radon, EPA also recommends that Americans consider fixing their home for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L”, according to their website at https://www.epa.gov/radon. The homeowners, with assistance from an electrician and coring company, completed their installation in roughly three days at a cost of just under $4,000.00. Their post-remedial readings are now in the 1.0 picocurie per liter.
If remedial work is necessary in your home, a list of nationally certified mitigators can be found online at the National Radon Proficiency Program website at www.nrpp.info. If you’re building a new home, radon mitigation systems can be integrated into the construction at a nominal cost. Since radon is such a hot topic across the country, plenty of information is available. The booklets “Homebuyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon,” “Reducing Radon Risks”, “A Citizen’s Guide to Radon” and “Radon, A Physician’s Guide” are available by phoning EPA’s National Hotline at 800-SOSRADON (767-7236) or by logging on to www.epa.gov/radon.
To participate in New Mexico’s Indoor Radon Outreach Program, contact NMED Indoor Radon Outreach Coordinator, Michael Taylor, at 505-476-8608 or Michael.Taylor@state.nm.us. Program details can be found at https://www.env.nm.gov/rcb/indoor-radon-outreach-program/.
See you at closing!
Gary Sandler is a full-time Realtor and president of Gary Sandler Inc., Realtors in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He loves to answer questions and can be reached at 575-642-2292 or Gary@GarySandler.com.