Chemung Radon Monitoring Project

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that occurs naturally from the decay of uranium and radium. Within the past few years, high levels of radon have been found in homes in the United States.

Indoor radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and the leading cause among non-smokers.

Protect your family, and test your home.

Chemung County Radon Monitoring ProjectRadon Entry & PotentialRadon MovementThe Geology of Radon

Chemung County Radon Monitoring Project
  • Test your home for radon - it's easy and inexpensive.
  • Fix your home if your radon level is 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chemung County has free printed radon material available and Radon Test Kits available for $10.00.

If you have any questions, please call 734-4453, or stop by our office at 425 Pennsylvania Avenue, Elmira.

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Radon Entry & Potential

Radon entry into buildings Radon moving through soil pore spaces and rock fractures near the surface of the earth usually escapes into the atmosphere. Where a house in present, however, soil air often flows toward its foundation for three reasons: 1) differences in air pressure between the soil and the house, 2) the presence of openings in the house's foundation, and 3) increases in permeability around the basement (if one is present).

In constructing a house with a basement, a hole is dug, footings are set, and coarse gravel is usually laid down as a base for the basement slab. Then once the basement walls have been built, the gap between the basement walls and the ground outside is filled with material that often is more permeable than the original ground. This filled gap is called a disturbed zone.

Radon moves into the disturbed zone and the gravel bed underneath from the surrounding soil. The backfill material in the disturbed zone is commonly rocks and soil from the foundation site, which also generate and release radon. The amount of radon in the disturbed zone and gravel bed depends on the amoount of uranium present in the rock at the site, the type and permeability of soil surrounding the disturbed zone and underneath the gravel bed, and the soil's moisture content.

The air pressure in the ground around most houses is often greater than the air pressure inside the house. Thus, air tends to move from the disturbed zone and gravel bed into the house through openings in the house's foundation. All house foundations have openings such as cracks, utility entries, seams between foundation materials, and uncovered soil in crawl spaces and basements.

Most houses draw less than one percent of their indoor air from the soil; the remainder comes from outdoor air, which is generally quite low in radon. Houses with low indoor air pressures, poorly sealed foundations, and several entry points for soil air, however, may draw as much as 20 percent of their indoor air from the soil. Even if the soil air has only moderate levels of radon, levels inside the house may be very high.

Radon gets in through:

  1. Cracks on the solid floors.
  2. Construction joints.
  3. Cracks in walls.
  4. Gaps in suspended floors.
  5. Gaps around service pipes.
  6. Cavities inside walls.
  7. The water supply.

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Radon Movement

Because radon is a gas, it has much greater mobility than uranium and radium, which are fixed in the solid matter in rocks and soils. Radon can more easily leave the rocks and soils by escaping into fractures and openings in rocks and into the pore spaces between grains of soil.

The ease and efficiency with which radon moves in the pore space or fracture effects how much radon enters a house. If radon is able to move easily in the pore space, then it can travel a great distance before it decays, and it is more likely to collect in high concentrations inside a building.

The method and speed of radon's movement through soil is controlled by the amount of water present in the pore space (the soil moisture content), the percentage of pore space in the soil (the porosity), and the "interconnectedness" of the pore spaces that determines the soil's ability to transmit water and air, called soil permeability.

Radon moves more rapidly through permeable soils, such a coarse sand and gravel, than through impermeable soils, such as clays. Fractures in any soil or rock allow radon to move more quickly. Some radon atoms remain trapped in the soil and decay to form lead; other atoms escape quickly into the air.

Radon in water moves slower than radon in air. The distance that radon moves before most of it decays is less than 1 inch in water-saturated rocks or soils, but it can be more than 6 feet, and sometimes tens of feet, through dry rocks or soils. Because water also tends to flow much more slowly through soil pores and rock fractures than does air, radon travels shorter distances in wet soils than in dry soils before it decays. For these reasons, homes in areas with drier, high permeable soils and bedrock, such as hill slopes, mouths and bottoms of canyons, coarse glacial deposits, and fractured or cavernous bedrock, may have high levels of indoor radon. Even if the radon content of the air in the soil or fracture is in the "normal" range (200-2,000 pCi/L), the permeability of these areas permits radon-bearing air to move greater distances before it decays, and thus contributes to high indoor radon.

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The Geology of Radon

Studies of the geology of radon include research into how uranium and radon sources are distributed in rocks and soils, how radon forms in rocks and soils, and how radon moves. Studying how radon enters buildings from the soil and through the water system is also an important part of the geology of radon.

Uranium: The source To understand the geology of radon - where it forms, how it forms, how it moves - we have to start with its ultimate source, uranium. All rocks contain some uranium, although most contain just a small amount - between 1 and 3 parts per million (ppm) of uranium. In general, the uranium content of a soil will be about the same as the uranium content of the rock from which the soil was derived.

Some types of rocks have higher than average uranium contents. These include light-colored volcanic rocks, granites, dark shales, sedimentary rocks that contain phosphate, and metamorphic rocks derived from these rocks. These rocks and their soils may contain as much as 100 ppm uranium. Layers of these rocks underlie various parts of the United States.

The three major rock types The higher the uranium level is in an area, the greater the chances are that houses in the area have high levels of indoor radon. But some houses in areas with lots of uranium in the soil have low levels of indoor radon, and other houses on uranium-poor soils have high levels of indoor radon. Clearly, the amount of radon in a house is affected by factors in addition to the presence of uranium in the underlying soil.

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Toni Gardner
Association Community Educator
(607) 734-4453 ext 203

Last updated October 26, 2016