At its regular meeting Tuesday, Jan. 14, Summit County’s commissioners once again declared January as Radon Action Month, spotlighting the dangers of the silent, toxic gas lurking in some Colorado homes. The annual campaign reminds homeowners to get their homes tested for radon during the winter, when radon danger is at its highest due to closed windows and doors that allow radon to accumulate inside.
Radon is a carcinogenic, naturally occurring radioactive gas that emanates from soil as radioactive metals decay underground. Radon is especially prevalent in Colorado due to the uranium-rich geology in the state. In mountain communities like Summit, the danger is even higher due to the presence of many heavy metals in the earth.
The Environmental Protection Agency suggests radon mitigation measures for homes and businesses if radon is detected at levels of 4.0 or more picocuries (a unit of radioactivity) per liter. The average radon level in homes nationwide is 1.3 picocuries per liter, while the average radon level in Summit homes is 8.7 picocuries per liter, which is more than double the recommended level for mitigation. The county said that amount is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
It is estimated that radon is the cause of at least 21,000 deaths across the country each year, contributing to as many as 500 deaths annually in Colorado. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers and the second-leading cause of lung cancer generally in the United States.
While county and town building codes require radon mitigation in new construction, older buildings that were grandfathered into the current code do not usually have radon mitigation built in.
Without mitigation, radon easily can enter homes through the foundation, gaps around piping and other spaces around a home. During the winter, when doors and windows tend to stay closed, the gas can get trapped in dangerously high concentrations.
“The tighter a house is constructed and insulated, the more entrapment,” Summit County Environmental Health Manager Dan Hendershott said last year during the 2019 Radon Action Month campaign.
The county has a program that offers free radon testing kits to residents to check levels in their homes. There are kits for short-term and long-term testing, with the short-term test lasting three to seven days and the long-term kit checking for radon over the course of three to six months. While the latter will be more accurate about radon levels over time, either one can tell if there is a dangerous level of radon in the home.
Once the test period ends, the device is mailed to a laboratory, and the test results can be retrieved online.
According to statistics provided by the county environmental health department, in the past 10 years the county has given away 3,943 test kits, with 72% of them being used and 59% of used kits reporting radon levels above the mitigation threshold of 4 picocuries per liter. The highest radon level the county has recorded was a whopping 379 picocuries per liter for a home in the Upper Blue Basin.
For residents living in ground units of multifamily developments, Hendershott suggested working with a homeowners association to get testing done in the units. The county’s current building code requires passive radon detection systems in new homes, but Hendershott still suggested testing new homes to make sure the system is working properly.
Aside from homes, Hendershott also suggested folks consider testing their workplaces for radon. To help homeowners and businesses pay for mitigation work to stop radon accumulation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment provides the Low Income Radon Mitigation Assistance Program.
For more information on radon, including how to obtain a free test kit or finding a certified mitigation contractor, visit summitcountyco.gov/radon or stop by the environmental health department at the County Commons, 37 Peak One Drive in Frisco. Kits are available while supplies last and are only available to Summit residents.