by Arnie Katz


Q: My wife and I are getting ready to buy our first house with some help from my in-laws. I love them, and they mean well, but they’re driving me nuts about radon and electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). When I mention these things to builders they get that rolled-eye look that says, “Why do I get stuck with all the nut cases?” I haven’t heard much about radon lately — is there really something to it, or did it turn out to be just another politically correct fad? And what’s the deal with EMFs?

A: I can’t answer the “politically correct” part, since that seems to be one of those fairly meaningless phrases that we throw around to make the point that we disagree with a particular idea or action. Rather than depend on logic, facts, or experience, some people prefer to simply write off new notions without thinking much about them. In my youth, people would write off ideas by calling them “communist.” Nowadays, they use “politically correct,” or “fundamentalist,” or, worst of all, “the rantings of a Carolina fan.”

Concern about radon, however, cannot be written off as a fad. Not nearly so interesting, perhaps, as the sexual memories or fantasies (take your pick) of a 24-year old former government functionary, radon is estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cause about 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year. There is a substantial body of research backing up that estimate.

Testing for radon is can be done fairly cheaply, usually for $10 to $30. The problem when you’re building a new home is that you can’t test it until the house is built. The question then becomes, “How much do you want to spend to protect yourself from something that may not be a problem in this house?”

While radon occasionally is emitted from building materials, such as concrete made with the waste ore, or tailings, from uranium mines, it is almost always a site problem. If there is radon at your site, the challenge is to keep the gas from entering the living space of your house. Houses built on posts, pillars, piles, or piers with open foundations like you often see at the beach, are unlikely to have radon inside.

Another strategy is to install perforated drain pipe under the slab of a basement or slab-on-grade house, with an exhaust pipe hooked up to the pipe. If the house tests positive for radon, then you can install a fan to make sure the radon is exhausted above the roof rather than into the house.

A third approach is to use pressure differences to control the radon. If the house is always slightly pressurized relative to the crawl space or basement, then the air will always flow from the house to the crawl space, rather than the other way around. This kind of system has to be carefully designed, and the detail work during construction becomes crucial.

Generally, for a couple of hundred dollars, you can make sure that you can deal with a radon problem cost-effectively if one exists. It’s easy to write off the whole thing with, “Well, according to some people, everything causes cancer nowadays.” That may be smart, but it certainly isn’t wise.

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