Like a lot of homeowners, Mike and Jean Seibold weren't thinking about radon when they moved into their new house a decade ago.
It wasn't until recently – after reading a lot about radon in the news – that Jean Seibold got to wondering if some of that colorless, odorless poison gas could be seeping up through the ground into her family's home.
"We're in the basement so much," she said. "We put a pool table down there. We exercise down there."
The Seibolds, of Savoy, decided to investigate. They picked up a radon test kit and set it up in their house.
The results confirmed Jean's fears: Radon was in their home – and exceeding a safe level.
Thousands of other Illinois homes have been tested for radon in recent years, but Patrick Daniels, a health physicist with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, worries about the many thousands more that haven't been tested.
Too many people don't find out they've been living with radon – the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States – until they sell their homes, he said.
Then, he adds, "they have to pay to have it fixed and have had none of the health benefits."
The Seibolds weren't about to wait that long. Jean Seibold said she and her husband hired a licensed radon mitigation contractor, who installed a ventilation system in their home to capture the radon gas leaking in and push it outdoors, where it doesn't pose a health hazard.
Seibold said hiring a professional made the whole thing less of a nuisance, but ultimately she views taking care of radon as a basic responsibility of home ownership.
"It's just one of those things that you do," she said.
Radon in Illinois
Radon is a radioactive gas occurring from the breakdown of uranium in the earth. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has divided the country into three zones for probability of radon, with central Illinois being in the zone of highest probability.
Radon enters buildings through cracks in the foundation and open sump pumps, and can be found in both old and new houses, with or without basements, and on any level of a building, said Michael Flanagan, a sanitarian with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
"Brand new homes can have high levels of radon, and 100-year-old homes can have nothing," he said.
Regardless of whether you live in a high, moderate or low radon zone of the country, everybody should test for radon, the EPA advises, because homes with high levels can be found even in zones with low or moderate probability for radon.
The gas is measured in picocuries per liter of air, and by U.S. standards an indoor reading of 4 picocuries or greater is considered unsafe enough to take mitigation action.
The Seibolds' reading was 5.5 picocuries, Jean Seibold said. But Flanagan said he's seen a reading as high as 36 in Champaign County. And that pales in comparison to a reading of 78.8 found in a home in DuPage County, an area where the probability for radon is considered moderate.
The good news about radon is that it's easily taken care of, Daniels and Flanagan say – though, as Jean Seibold points out, the solution comes at a price.
The average cost of a residential radon mitigation job is $1,200, and the most common system is the kind the Seibolds purchased: sealing around the foundation, heavy plastic over the dirt floor of the crawl space under their family room, a cover over the sump pump and a long pipe with a fan that draws radon out of the ground beneath the house and vents it up and outside.
Test or not?
Flanagan said the most common argument he hears from homeowners against testing is the fear that if they find a radon problem they'll have to disclose it when they try to sell the house.
Fortunately, he adds, for every local homeowner who doesn't want to test for radon, there are two more lining up for free radon test kits from the health district.
Public health is all out of free test kits for now, but Flanagan said he hopes to have 300 more later this month to give out on a first-come, first-served basis.
In Illinois, homeowners don't have to test for radon, even at the time of a home sale, but a prospective home buyer may ask for a test as a condition of the sale. And homeowners who do test for radon are required to disclose their findings to prospective buyers, according to the Illinois Association of Realtors.
Does the sight of a radon mitigation system in a home scare off potential buyers?
Quite the opposite, said Randy Raynolds, deputy vice president of the Realtors association.
In some areas of the state, where people have become highly aware of radon problems, buyers insist on knowing the radon status before they sign a home sales contract – and the presence of a mitigation system signals that the buyer can relax because the problem was found and taken care of.
"In Springfield, I'm not sure you even have a house that sells that hasn't been tested," said Raynolds, who had his own house tested and a mitigation system installed last year. "It's just part of making the house safe, like putting in a carbon monoxide detector."
Flanagan advises people to set a radon testing device in the lowest level of the house they occupy – the basement if they have one, otherwise the ground floor – and to keep doors and windows shut, except for normal going in and out of the house.
Some of his pointers:
– Don't test in a bathroom, kitchen or laundry room because humidity can skew the results.
– Don't test during weather conditions of high wind, rain or snow, which can also affect results.
– Do the quick (seven-day) test first, and if the results fall between 4 and 9 picocuries, seal up any cracks in the basement, cover up the sump pump and then repeat with a long-term (three-month) test to see if there's still a problem before taking further action.
– If the results surpass 9 picocuries, do another quick test to double-check results before taking action.
Daniels said the state would like to get a better handle on how much radon is being found in homes but lacks enough solid data, partly because nobody knows how much testing is being done and because some tests done by homeowners might be done incorrectly.
Some people, for example, set the tests near sump pumps or in crawl spaces, thinking that's where most of the radon would be entering their homes, he said. But that's not an accurate reflection of the radon exposure they get on a regular basis.
"I'll say, 'How much time do you spend with your head in the sump pump, or how much time do you spend in your crawl space?' " Daniels said.
Daniels said changes are in the works to expand the available data next year.
Currently neither the homeowners nor the labs they mail their test kits to are required to share the findings with the state, with one exception: Labs processing the findings on tests the state gives away for free are required to share those findings with both the homeowners and the state. Under a rules change Daniels said he expects to be in place by next spring, the labs will have to share radon findings with both the state and the property owners on all tests, regardless of where the tests originated.
For property owners concerned about privacy, findings for individual properties won't be disclosed to the public.
"We treat it like a medical record," Daniels said.