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Radon or Carbon Monoxide
Radon is the slow killer, causing lung cancer at a rate beaten out only by cigarettes.
Carbon Monoxide is the result of burning fuels, and can cause severe results, both in short and long term.
Have you tested your home for radon? My guess is probably not, because it's easy to ignore. Radon has no color, no taste, no smell and that means no annoyance. It's not 'in-your-face' like a wall covered in black mold, even though it can be even more dangerous. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it can cause lung cancer, it's found in every state, though it's worse in the northern states and it can easily detected through use of a radon detector. Here are some really straight-forward facts:
You probably have radon in your home
Radon is pretty much everywhere and
There is no safe level of radon
Radon kills ~49 times more people than Carbon Monoxide
Radon is the Number One Cause of lung cancer in people who don't directly inhale hot toxic gases
According to the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council, There are no symptoms associated with exposure to radon.
MIAQC also says, The predominant health effect associated with exposure to elevated levels of radon is lung cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that radon causes about 14,000 deaths per year in the U.S.—however, this number could range from 7,000 to 30,000 deaths per year. If you smoke and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is especially high
Let’s take a quick step back to high school science class. Radon is naturally occurring and is a gas at the atomic level, meaning there it can pass right through solid stone and come up out of the ground. With that said, there are strategies of how to handle it once it's up. As expected, a gas follows the path of least resistance. With an in-ground radon mitigation system, installers set up a path for it to follow, leading it to a fan which blows it harmlessly outside. Unfortunately these systems aren't an option for every home. When mitigating isn't an option, ventilation is. According to Robert Stilwell, the Radon Officer for the State of Maine, ventilation can cut radon in half.
Now don’t beat yourself up for not knowing about radon. Despite the efforts of a variety of groups and individuals like the MIAQC and Kurt Johnson, for some reason people just don’t seem to pick up on it. Before I started with Fresh Air, I certainly knew very little about it. Here’s everything I know:
It’s a gas!
It’s on the periodic table of elements!
So yeah, a bit ignorant of something so deadly. If you live in an apartment your landlord already has to have measured the level of radon starting back on March 1st of 2014 and unless they opted to install a mitigation system, you as the tenant can request a re-test every 10 years. This tipsheet provided by the State of Maine will give you more insight into your options as a tenant. Now onto the slightly-less-successful-but-still-deadly-other-silent-killer;
Hoppin’ back to high school science again, seems to be a lot of time travel here. Lots of things are carbon based on this planet, you, me, trees, fish, graphite, that diamond ring you’ve been eyeing and the charcoal brickets in the grill. Carbon, like radon, is a base element. Anything made of carbon can be burned in the presence of Oxygen. If we could burn carbon “perfectly” we would always get Carbon Dioxide or CO2, but there’s no way to always burn Carbon in the presence of enough Oxygen, which would be “perfect”. What we’re left with is a partial compound resulting in Carbon coupling with only one Oxygen instead of two and bam; Carbon Monoxide or CO.
As a result, we form a lot of CO. Burning candles, all those campfires and bon fires, those strange and “exotic” foods you’re always trying to cook and end up burning before the neighbor gets upset, and gas or propane stoves, propane fireplaces (make your own CO right inside your very own indoor fireplace,) gas grills; vehicle, lawn mower and generator exhaust and smoking; anything. Of course fuels on their own are also sources of CO. There’s too many to list them all. In addition to the radon in most homes, people who choose to inhale burning Carbon are opting to take CO directly. CO is more easily preventable than Radon. Don’t have any open burning fuels inside the house, like propane stoves and fireplaces or kerosene lanterns. Always, always cook with your range hood turned on and cook only on the back burners to ensure more of the gasses produced get sucked up. (This also helps with moisture as cooking on a stovetop puts quite a bit of moisture into the air.)
While CO can be deadly, that’s only above a certain threshold. Skip down to the last paragraph for measurements and examples. For low levels of CO one can experience a plethora of various symptoms if exposed over an extended period of time. The list of symptoms is rather odd with possibilities ranging from sensory sensitivity changes including sounds, touch, odors, electromagnetic fields, lights, getting muscle aches, confusion and memory loss or incoordination.
My experience with Chronic CO Poisoning
I have some first hand experience with what’s referred to Low-Level Long-Term CO Exposure (or Chronic CO Poisoning), though I didn’t know it until I worked with Fresh Air and a customer called us to let us know he’d discovered why he had so many sensitivities. He had discovered he has MUSES, an escalation of MCS which you can read more about here.
My wife has a lot of sensitivities, mostly fragrances in the air and on her skin and I was fairly convinced she would be positive for this type of CO exposure. We ordered a handheld CO-Detector capable of reading to levels of 0 parts per million (ppm) and held our breath, exhaled into bags with the device inside and Kurt, the owner had a level of 0ppm. One of installers had a level of 1, my wife had a level of 0 and then it came to me. I had a level of 9ppm, the highest of us all. I was confused and called the customer who had done more research and he provided us information for a doctor in Canada. While on the phone I exhaled onto the device again (this time not into a bag, but outdoors) and I got 12ppm.
Suddenly a few things made a lot of sense; getting a headache every time the train is headed my way, or how abnormally-sickening tobacco and marijuana smells are, sensitivities to things like Axe body spray and perfumes. To be fair, there are some perceived benefits from this as well, though I wouldn’t suggest getting poisoned is ever a good thing, my taste pallette is quite sensitive. It has allowed me to detect even minute spices in things, so food is much more flavorful. When it comes to adult beverages, the alcohol in it is so strong I can’t bear to drink them very much. I can smell things like flowers with greater intensity and since I don’t have floral allergies, my lilac bush and other flowers are quite splendid. I can detect more easily the various instruments in the background of a song. It’s like everything becomes a bit more “full” which can be overwhelming at times, moreso with smells and sounds than anything else. My threshold for smells and sounds is much lower, and I get sick of things much quicker than I did when I was young.
I borrowed the CO Detector and went to the apartment where I used to live with friends, my mothers house and one of my childhood homes, which the new owners were quite happy to have their home checked for CO. I have not been able to confirm the culprit, though I have two theories. One is my old car which had a small exhaust issue and sometimes a faint smell could be detected inside, but I’ve sold that car. The other theory, which I’ll be able to check when it’s colder, is at my mother’s house again but with her propane fire place on. CO is heavy, and I lived a floor down from the fireplace.
At what level does carbon monoxide become toxic?
According to the CDC: "For healthy adults CO becomes toxic when it reaches a level higher than 35 ppm (parts per million) with continuous exposure over an eight hour period.. When the level of CO becomes higher than that a person will suffer from symptoms of exposure. Mild exposure over 2-3 hours (a CO level between 35 ppm and 200 ppm) will produce flu-like symptoms such as headaches, sore eyes and a runny nose. Medium exposure (a CO level between 200 ppm to 800 ppm) will produce dizziness, drowsiness and vomiting in as little as 1 hour. This level of exposure is deemed to be life threatening once three hours has passed. Extreme exposure (a CO level of 800 ppm and higher) will result in unconsciousness, brain damage and death in as little as a few minutes. OSHA guidelines state that the maximum exposure over an eight hour time period is 35 ppm."