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Are low levels of radon in my basement bad for my wine cellar?

Lizzie Munro
Posted: August 30, 2012

Q: I bought a new home, and the basement tested for low levels of radon. It's below the level where remediation is required, but I was planning on putting my wine cellar there. Do I need to be concerned that it could seep into my bottles?--Dana, New Jersey

A: First off, it’s important to understand how radon enters your home. As warm air rises and escapes through small openings and other areas of leakage in the house, the overall pressure within the structure is reduced, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum is what pulls gaseous radon, a byproduct of the natural breakdown of uranium in the soil, into the basement through minor gaps in the foundation.

Perhaps the most important concern therefore in building a wine cellar, according to Brian Hanson, Coordinator for the National Radon Program Services and Kansas Radon Program Services at Kansas State University, is that there is no way to predict how its construction will affect radon levels throughout the entire home. Though Hanson notes that a small cellar, meant solely for storing wine will likely leave the radon levels unchanged, he cautions that a larger renovation could change the airflow of the house.

"If we’re looking at a broad scale conversion that’s going to be dealing with a very substantial area of that sub grade [basement] area, then that may potentially have an impact on the normal air dynamics of the house,” says Hanson. In cases like these, he advocates installing radon controls, such as an active soil depressurization reduction system, which helps to filter the radon directly from the soil to the outside of the house through a ventilation pipe.

As for whether or not radon can penetrate the wine through the cork, Dr. Christian Butzke, Professor of Enology in the Department of Food Science at Purdue University, says this is unlikely. Although he acknowledges that no specific research has been done on the effects of radon on wine, he asserts that with a proper closure, there should be virtually no air entering the bottle. “The longer the cork and the more perfect it is from a physical perspective, the less permeation of any outside air is going in,” says Butzke. “There’s really very little gas exchange at all,” he says, provided that the bottles are stored properly on their side.

There is also no risk of radon particles settling on the bottles themselves. Says Hanson, “Radon is naturally moving . . . it follows the normal ventilation patterns of the house, but it doesn’t accumulate on objects, and it doesn’t accumulate in substances."

Though chronic, long-term exposure to radon can lead to lung cancer, your individual risk is calculated by your average daily exposure. If you wine cellar is used solely for storage, this exposure would be minimal. If you’re planning on spending more time downstairs in a tasting room alongside the wine cellar, your exposure might be greater.

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