Radon Relief

I pass out warnings like the Marines pass out haircuts: all day long, to everybody who walks in the door, whether they want one or not. On a given day, I'm likely to warn one person that his attic stair could break and drop him on his head, then warn the next person that his shower is a cruel Viet Cong-style booby trap, with 140-degree water just waiting to shoot out of the cold-water faucet.

It's the nature of the home-inspection business. In a country where irons bear labels that say, "Never iron clothes while they are being worn," you can't be stingy with warnings. People expect warnings these days like they expect handshakes. So, given that the EPA says radioactive radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and given that our little part of the world is a known radon hot spot, co-inspector Rick and I warn everybody about the risk of having a house-full of radon. Of the 400 or so houses we've tested for radon, between 20 and 25 percent have had radon levels at or above the EPA "action level" of 4 picocuries per liter.

Some people scoff at the radon warning and the science behind it. But the EPA isn't the only entity worried about radon. The National Cancer Institute-after studying 68,000 miners who were exposed to high radon levels-found that those miners were dying of lung cancer five times faster than folks from the general population. I say that's an impressive statistic.

So radon's a worrisome thing, and we ought to stay away from it, right? Well, not everybody thinks that way, Bubba. People out west are selling radon, and people are lining up to get a dose.

I know, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I get all swimmy-headed just thinking about it. But it happened like this: Back in the early 50s, a Montana woman took frequent lunchtime visits with her husband, who worked in a uranium mine. After her visits, the woman claimed that her bursitis didn't bother her nearly as much. Word of her cure got out, and soon people were lining up to get in the mines.

They're still lining up, and they're paying between $2.50 and $5 an hour to go down into the "health mines," where the air and water are naturally loaded with radon gas. These pilgrims-mostly retirees who think they're pulling an end-run on government-sponsored health-care programs and/or big drug companies-are spending days at the mines, purposely sucking in radon, drinking it, and bathing in it. They say the radon isn't just helping bursitis. It's curing allergies, gout, asthma, lupus, carpal tunnel syndrome, enlarged prostate, and virtually any disease that ends with -itis or -algia. Some folks are even dosing their arthritic doggies with radon. And they say it works.

Excuse me for saying so, but this sounds like classic pothead logic to me. I can clearly recall 20 years back, listening to a bunch of my musician friends-guys who'd roll up a joint made entirely of stems and seeds if need be-talking about how pot cured everything from hair loss to ingrown toenails. It made 'em sleep, it made 'em wake up, it made 'em creative, it gave 'em the power to make love for days on end, they said. As the only non-pothead in the bunch, it fell to me to point out that I hadn't seen anybody do anything in the last 12 hours except click channels between porn and MTV. But I digress.

For years now, local homeowners have thought of radon as a problem. If your house had radon, you'd have to pay somebody to hook up a bunch of pipes and fans to blow it out of the house. If you put the house up for sale, potential buyers might balk.

Now, by golly, given all this good radon news from out Montana way, and the ailments piling up on aging boomers, what once was a problem is now a feature. If your house has radon, you can be loud and proud about it: "Open Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. Park-like setting. New kitchen. Special radon room in basement. Cures many -itises and -algias."

Got a leaky basement? Normally, potential homebuyers hate that. But you could drop a whirly tub into that leaky corner, and you'd have yourself a radon spa. Folks who've been sitting on those tough-to-sell synthetic stucco houses might even think about sinking some suckpipes into the ground, in hopes of hitting a radon vein. Couldn't hurt.

It's been a while since I tested my house for radon. I think I'll test again soon. I might even use one of those fancy grab samplers, so I can pinpoint the source of any radon. If I locate a good hot spot, I'll sink a pipe there and cap it off. Then, when we eventually sell the place, I'll advertise the house as "radon-ready."