Thinking past radon detection to consider air quality for real estate sales and purchases

Marie Bannister, March 02, 2020

In the US there is often a legal obligation to monitor radon for 48 hours before selling property. There are benefits to thinking past this requirement when you’re making real estate decisions, to consider the wider impact of radon and the overall importance of indoor air quality.

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that is emitted naturally when uranium breaks down in rock, soil, and water under our homes. The gas can seep into buildings through cracks in the foundations and concentrate when it is trapped indoors1. And the higher the levels of radon, the more harmful it is to your health and wellbeing.

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This matters, because radon increases our risk of getting lung cancer. The gas is responsible for an estimated 15,000 – 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the US each year2 and the Surgeon General has warned that it is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers3. 7.1 million American homes are affected by potentially unsafe levels of radon.

In the US, real estate laws require homes to be inspected before they are sold, and radon testing is frequently part of that process. This requires using a short-term testing kit that measures levels of the gas for a minimum of 48 hours.

The results provide a snapshot of concentrations in indoor air, but the insight they offer is limited, because conditions inside the home change constantly. To get a more accurate picture, you may want to think about installing indoor air quality monitors in your home.

Radon is one aspect of the air you breathe, but indoor air quality, or indoor air quality, covers other pollutants and conditions that affect your health and well-being.

Indoor air quality monitors measure contaminants like VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that exist in cleaning products, paints, solvents, carpets, and furniture. These chemicals cause short-term problems like headaches and inflammation of eyes, nose or throat4, as well as contributing to longer-term conditions like cardiovascular disease, asthma and lung cancer.

Indoor air quality also includes things like air pressure, temperature and humidity, that affect how we feel and how we perform. These conditions are linked to complaints like headaches and migraine5 or variations in blood pressure.

To ensure that you live in a healthier, more pleasant environment, it’s worth thinking beyond 48-hour radon detection and taking indoor air quality into account as you buy real estate or move into a new home. Long term monitors such as the Airthings Wave Plus measure continuously, so you will know when high levels are accumulating and are able to prevent a bigger problem. 

What should I look out for when I’m choosing a new home?

Family moving into a new home carrying boxes

When you’re considering a real estate purchase or planning to rent a new property, a good starting point is to check the levels of outdoor pollution in the area. According to research by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), concentrations of key pollutants are typically two to five times higher indoors than outdoors6. If the outdoor air quality is poor, you’re more likely to need mitigation, like a ventilation system, to ensure good quality indoor air.

It’s important to make sure levels of radon inside the property are checked. If levels of the gas are high, it’s possible to take action to improve the situation. Simply opening a window can help, but there could be a need to seal up holes and cracks in the building or place plastic sheeting above any crawl space beneath the house7. You may need to install a radon mitigation system8.

There can be a trade-off between properly ventilating your house and achieving energy efficiency, so you’ll need to bear that in mind. Builders strive to make houses more airtight to prevent wasting heat, but that affects the fresh air, temperature and humidity inside, which in turn has an impact on indoor air quality.

On the flip side, if the building leaks too much energy, you’ll need tech that maximizes the efficiency of boosting indoor air quality – for example by automatically turning ventilation systems on only when they’re needed or when the house is occupied.

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The newest indoor air quality solutions, including Airthings devices, integrate with smart-home tech, so you can use Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa to monitor and control the quality of air in your home. It’s even possible to have a cutting edge monitor alert you to high levels of pollutants by changing the color of your smart bulbs.

If you’re considering renting a home, the potential to make structural changes may be limited. Wireless indoor air quality monitors can be installed without drilling holes and, if the building suffers from persistently poor air quality, they’ll provide evidence that your landlord needs to take action.

When you move in

Couple sitting on the floor of their new home with boxes around them

So you’ve moved in, and you’re monitoring indoor air quality to measure levels of radon, other pollutants and air conditions. How can you take action on this information?

To cut VOCs in your home, it helps to choose products that are as healthy as possible. 60% of the people we surveyed regularly purchased organic and toxin free cleaning products for their households, which is a great way to limit the amount of harmful chemicals they inhale.

Similarly, certification bodies for the paint industry are increasingly labeling their products, ‘low VOC’, ‘no VOC’ or ‘zero VOC’. If you’re planning to redecorate, it’s sensible to look for paints that carry these labels.

New furniture and carpets are another potential source of VOCs. You can cut exposure by using older furniture, including upcycled and repurposed items. Old woolen carpets also produce less chemicals than modern ones that ordinarily use greater quantities of glue.

In contrast, older ceiling tiles are likely to emit more VOCs, while newer tiles are generally safer.

If you have potentially toxic substances in your home, it’s worth keeping them in an unattached garage or outbuilding, if you have one, or putting them into storage. Chemicals like solvents, paints and powerful cleaning agents are not just hazardous when you use them. They give off gases that find their way into rooms across your property, reducing the quality of your air.

On average, we spend 90% of our time indoors, so air quality is something that we shouldn’t leave to chance. It’s important to measure radon levels when we buy or sell property, but monitoring the air we breathe should be an ongoing process.

Rather than using a 48-hour test to check a real estate compliance box, we should be thinking year-round about indoor air quality and using long-term monitors to make sure we can be at our happiest, healthiest and most productive in our homes. 

Takeaways

  • Radon is a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. In the US, sales of homes usually involve a 48-hour test to measure its concentration in indoor air.
  • A short-term test like this provides a snapshot, but it is not a substitute for monitoring radon over the longer term. Similarly, when it comes to real estate, we should be thinking more broadly about indoor air quality indoor air quality.
  • When you’re buying a new home or renting, you should check levels of radon, as well as consider ventilation and ways to ensure good indoor air quality in the property.
  • When you move in, buy toxin free products to limit your exposure to harmful chemicals called VOCs. Choosing older furniture or upcycled items helps too.
  • When we buy or sell property, it’s important to test radon, but monitoring the air we breathe should be an ongoing process.

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Sources

  1. https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2015/03/20/five-facts-every-home-owner-should-know-about-radon/
  2. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/radon/radon-fact-sheet
  3. https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon
  4. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality
  5. https://migraineagain.com/feel-4-ways-barometric-pressure-affects-health/
  6. https://www.epa.gov/report-environment/indoor-air-quality
  7. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-05/documents/hmbuygud.pdf
  8. https://www.ukradon.org/information/reducelevels

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