You can't see it. You can't smell it. You can't taste it. But radon gas is pretty much everywhere. That's not a problem in the open air, but high concentrations in your home spell trouble.
Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. If your home happens to be sitting on top of such a concentration, it can seriously affect your health, especially if you also are a cigarette smoker. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second-most leading cause of lung cancer. The EPA says about 1 in every 15 homes have elevated amounts of the gas and that all homes below the third floor level should be tested for it.
The good news is that it's easy to test for and it's relatively straightforward to fix – reducing levels by up to 99%. Test kits usually cost less than $20 and can be bought from multiple retailers like Sears or Target, as well as online. Some states offer low-cost or free kits. Because radon levels may vary from day to day, the kits, which contain absorbent materials like charcoal, have to be left in place for several days and sometimes up to 90 days, though they only take a few minutes to set up. Just follow the instructions that come with the kit. You can also buy kits that run for longer thereby giving you a more accurate reading.
The kit will produce a figure in a measurement that's abbreviated as pCi/L. If this figure is more than 4.0 (average is 1.3), you need to take action, which normally involves installation of a vent pipe system and fan, which draws the gas away from below the building. You need a specialist radon contractor to do this or recommend other measures, like sealing foundation cracks.
Find more information including how to find local help and a contractor at http://www.epa.gov/radon. And if you're in the process of buying a home, remember to ask the sellers if it's been radon tested.