Radon gas threatens the safety of building users but facilities managers can follow simple steps to make improvements, says Øyvind Birkenes.
03 February 2020 | Øyvind Birkenes
Exposure to radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and is responsible for at least 1,100 deaths in the UK every year - more than three times the number of deaths attributed annually to house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning combined.
High levels of radon can be found in buildings of any type, size or location with occupants unaware of the potential danger unless it is being monitored.
Research shows that indoor radon levels are increasing owing to the changes we are making to our buildings for energy-efficiency purposes.
Yet in the UK, there is little awareness of the dangers radon gas exposure has on our health.
The advection process
Radon gas enters a building as the air pressure within a building is usually lower than the pressure in the soil and rocks around the building's foundations.
The radon enters through a process referred to as advection. This is where the gas moves from a point of higher pressure (the ground, soil and rocks) to a point of lower pressure (the building).
The difference in pressure causes the building to act as a vacuum, drawing radon in through foundation cracks and other openings. It is at this point that the radon becomes trapped within the building and where the levels can start to build up.
Testing radon levels
The only way to know whether elevated levels of radon are present is to use a device that monitors radon levels in the property for a period of time.
The most common type of radon test kit used today is based on charcoal or film canisters, which only provide a short-term measurement (days) and require being sent to a lab for analysis where a charge would apply. This is problematic as radon levels fluctuate greatly over time.
However, there are indoor air-monitoring products on the market that measure radon levels as well as CO2 and TVOCs [total volatile organic compounds] detectors with temperature, humidity and air pressure sensors. These monitors use digital sensors to provide real-time readings of radon levels over the long-term. To help combat radon in buildings, try the following:
1. Experiment with ventilation
Open windows and vents to ensure that air is flowing throughout the building.
2. Seal access points
Draft excluders and rubber seals are an inexpensive way to seal around doors and other access points in a building. This can be beneficial if the aim is to reduce radon levels in basements.
3. Use caulking products
Seal entry points in floors and walls of the building.
4. Clear natural underfloor ventilation
Buildings with a suspended ground floor and space underneath often have underfloor vents. These can often become blocked with foliage or dirt; clear the obstruction to improve the ventilation. Please note, some are intentionally blocked to prevent draughts, so speak to a professional if you are unsure.
5. Seal cracks
Radon often enters buildings through the ground. Seal large cracks and openings in the building, It can help reduce radon levels but also improve energy consumption. Obviously, gas will always move through small cracks, but the larger problem areas can be resolved.
Øyvind Birkenes is CEO of Airthings