Energy & Environment

Getting Religion on Radon

Governments have to persevere to persuade citizens like me to check our homes for this naturally occuring, radioactive gas.
by | March 2001

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

There's been a nagging worry in the back of my mind for years about whether our house in Albuquerque should be tested for radon. This naturally occurring radioactive gas, which has been ranked the second- leading cause of lung cancer, often seeps from soil or bedrock and has been a problem in some of my city's neighborhoods. Our home doesn't lie over any of the hot spots, so I've never gotten around to finding out how much colorless and odorless radon may be accumulating in the air my family's been breathing.

Thanks to a conscientious real estate agent, I've finally begun paying attention. We recently bought a new home in Montana, and the agent insisted that an inspector conduct a radon test before the contract was final. The result was 8.7 picoCuries of radon per liter of air, more than twice the level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable.

Fortunately, the danger can be readily mitigated with a simple system to vent the gas that gathers from the soil beneath the house's foundation. We're getting the problem fixed, but other Americans need to figure out whether they're breathing dangerous air right in their own living rooms. Radon is given off wherever natural radium decays in soil and rock, and EPA estimates that the air inside 6 million American homes, schools and public buildings contains unsafe levels.

"Your Realtor did you a good deed," says Brian Green, chief of Montana's radon control program, adding that he's never seen a home in Montana where, if the owner tried, the radon problem couldn't be fixed. Unfortunately, officials in other parts of the country tell you that builders don't always follow radon-control standards and that less-than-scrupulous real estate brokers would just as soon not know about health risks that state laws require be disclosed to potential buyers.

Radon's damaging effects were first noted in Western states when uranium miners began developing lung cancer, but worrisome measurements have been found inside structures above certain geologic formations all over the U.S. map. In half of Montana's homes, for instance, concentrations surpass EPA's recommended 4.0 pCi/L limit, and in 60 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, readings topping 100 pCi/L have been found in homes.

Radon exposure has been linked to 500 deaths every year in New Jersey alone, and that state has put what's probably the most aggressive radon program in place: The state revised its uniform construction code to require contractors to install radon-resistant barriers beneath new houses built in municipalities where 25 percent of tested homes don't meet the EPA guideline. State law also requires radon testing in all schools and day-care centers.

As state and local officials know all too well, once EPA sets a standard, meeting it can create real economic consequences. Some critics fret that federal scientists are overestimating the threat and promoting an arbitrary goal that causes people to waste financial resources. In Montana, installing a mechanism to reduce radon in our new house to the U.S. standard will cost $1,300. Just 300 miles north, where Canada sets its radon threshold three times higher than EPA's, our current reading would lie comfortably within the limit. Still, Canadian officials stand ready to advise homeowners on how to reduce radon levels even if they fall beneath the official benchmark. "We don't say they have to, but we don't say they shouldn't either," says Wayne Tiefenbach, Saskatchewan's radiation safety manager.

Truth be told, there's no evidence that any level of radon is safe if people breathe it daily. A study last year by the University of Iowa College of Public Health concluded that non-smoking women who lived 15 years in homes with radon concentrations at the U.S. limit run a 50 percent greater chance of contracting lung cancer. "Radon is one of the real threats that you really need to respect," says Marjorie Walle, Illinois' radon program manager. "But there are 11.5 million people in Illinois, and many of them are still not getting the information that radon is out there."

To be realistic, it's not likely that EPA, states or local governments could ever force homeowners to test their dwellings for radon. But construction standards can be tightened, and more builders and real estate brokers could be convinced they've got a professional obligation to address radon problems. Unfortunately, the radon- awareness campaigns that Albuquerque and other cities have been running for years won't make much of a dent until citizens like me take their warnings seriously.

Over the years, too many of us have gotten primed to scoff when EPA and advocacy groups come out with alarmist pronouncements about this or that environmental calamity. On radon, I've been convinced. Governments have to persevere to encourage vigilance against radon invading both homes and public buildings. In the end, however, it's up to the rest of us to start heeding an indisputable menace that could be lurking where we're living.


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