Living in the ‘Granite State’ means elevated risk for radon exposure, and in turn, lung cancer
Pictured is part of a radon pressurization system installed in a home. Battery-operated alarms on a suction pipe alert the homeowner if airflow stops. (Courtesy of Michael Talotta)
New Hampshire may be celebrated as the “Granite State,” but the centuries-old nickname also bears caution.
Because of the widespread presence of granite bedrock, the state has high percentages of homes with elevated radon levels. An invisible threat, the naturally occurring gas with no color, taste, or smell is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, and about 21,000 deaths are associated with it each year.
Formed when radioactive metals break down in rocks, soil, and groundwater, radon can enter buildings through foundations, sinks, showers, and toilets. It can be found in water or air, the latter being the most worrisome in terms of cancer risk.
“Any home, any age, anywhere in the state can have radon,” said Lynne Clement, who manages the air portion of the New Hampshire Radon Program. “This is the Granite State and radon is natural to our environment.”
Radon risk is particularly elevated in northern New Hampshire. A study released this month by the U.S. Geological Survey found much of the White Mountains region in the north-central part of the state has relatively high probabilities for radon and uranium, which ultimately breaks down and becomes radon.
Based in Littleton, Michael Talotta runs Northern Vista Home Inspection and Radon Mitigation. “The majority of the houses I test up here are elevated,” he said. “Some towns are hotspots.”
The USGS says 55 percent of the state is more likely than not to have elevated radon in groundwater. Drilled private wells have the highest risk of natural chemical contaminants.
What are the health risks of radon?
The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services estimates that long-term exposure to radon leads to 100 deaths in the state each year. Breathing it for extended periods of time can pose significant risks, and those who smoke have an even greater chance of getting lung cancer when combined with radon exposure.
Radon is naturally occurring, so people are always exposed to some level of it. But because of New Hampshire’s bedrock, potential exposure at elevated levels is greater than the national average. There’s concern for the approximately 40 percent of state residents who rely on private wells, according to the USGS, as private wells aren’t regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The responsibility is on the homeowner to get their water tested.
Radon enters a home through cracks in walls, basement floors, and foundations, as well as water used for showers, dishwashing, and toilet flushing. Radioactive particles from radon become trapped in a person’s lungs when they breathe the gas, ultimately causing damage over time.
Signs of radon poisoning can closely resemble lung cancer, such as a cough that won’t go away, trouble breathing, blood in mucus, chest pains, wheezing, or frequent respiratory infections.
New Hampshire offers free radon testing kits
It’s recommended that both the inside air of a home and private well water be tested for radon. The good news is that there are proven methods to remove the gas, and some reduction systems can reduce levels by up to 99 percent.
The New Hampshire Radon Program, an initiative of the state Department of Health and Human Services, provides free radon test kits to residents. Because the gas is unnoticeable, testing for it is the only way to gauge its prevalence in your home, Clement said.
In the last year, the program has distributed about 5,500 test kits with a 40 percent return rate. Clement said they’ve notified more than 700 homeowners of elevated levels.
The state program has also worked with schools and public health networks, Clement said, to spread awareness about the lesser-known gas and its health effects – through QR codes that take people directly to the free test kit website, radon-related curricula for fifth and seventh graders, and educational poster contests.
Once someone detects radon in their home, Clement “strongly encourages” the hiring of a mitigation specialist certified through the National Radon Proficiency Program or the National Radon Safety Board.
Talotta said most people are surprised to learn that radon is often present in newer construction, because homes today are built tighter and can “act like a vacuum,” with negative pressure sucking gas up from the soil.
Radon is mitigable, he emphasized, and people shouldn’t be scared to address it if they detect elevated levels in their home. The process of installing a pressurization system typically takes one day, and the cost – between $800 and $2,500, typically – is “better than getting cancer,” Talotta said.
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