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20 Years after Radon Abatement Act, Exposure Getting Worse

June 14, 2008

Nearly two decades after passage of the 1988 Indoor Radon Abatement Act (IRAA), exposure to indoor radon continues to grow. Efforts to reduce exposure through mitigation or building with radon-resistant new construction have not kept pace, according to a new report from EPA's Office of Inspector General (OIG). Of 6.7 million new single-family detached homes built nationwide between 2001 and 2005, only about 469,000 incorporated radon-resistant features. Of 76.1 million existing single-family homes in the United States in 2005, only about 2.1 million had radon-reducing features in place.

The IRAA established the goal that indoor air should be as free of radon as outdoor air. Since 1988, EPA has administered a voluntary program to reduce exposure to indoor radon by promoting awareness, testing, installation of radon mitigation systems in existing homes, and use of radon-resistant new construction techniques. Still, building codes in some areas do not require new homes to be built with radon-resistant new construction. Much of the progress made in reducing exposure has occurred as a result of real estate transactions. In those cases, a buyer, seller, mortgage lender, and/or real estate agent requested that a home be tested. Some states and localities do not require testing or the disclosure of test results during real estate transactions.

The OIG says the radon program is not achieving greater results for several reasons:

  • EPA's ability to achieve results with a voluntary program is limited.
  • Potential loss of a sale represents a disincentive for real estate agents and sellers to conduct radon tests during real estate transactions.
  • Added expense represents a disincentive for builders to use radon-resistant new construction.
  • The OIG says opportunities exist within the federal community to substantially increase the number of homes tested and mitigated for radon. EPA has not decided how to use all the authorities or tools available to it to achieve the Act's goals, and, meanwhile, it has not been reporting program results in relation to homes at risk in its performance reporting.

In its own report, OIG recommended that EPA develop a strategy for achieving the long-term goal of the IRAA that considered using the authorities authorized by Congress or explain its alternative strategy, which it agreed to do. OIG also recommended that EPA identify limitations to meeting the goal to Congress. EPA responded that it does not believe the IRAA goal is achievable. While EPA agrees that the problem of radon exposure gets worse each year, it did not agree to notify Congress that the goal set by the statute is unachievable. OIG considers this issue open and unresolved. OIG also recommended improvements to how EPA measures and reports program results, which it agreed to do.

Winter Months Increase Radon Danger

David Wood - 12/12/2007

The colder months always bring on stories about accidental deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in the home. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) estimates that about 200 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with home fuel-burning heating equipment.

But there is an even more dangerous, though little-noticed, killer lurking in many homes -- and just like carbon monoxide, it is invisible, odorless and tasteless.

It's radon -- a radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. and is associated with up to 22,000 lung cancer deaths per year.

Radon is commonly found in the air and water, where it poses little risk. But but radon that creeps into your home from the soil can be a much greater risk.

Radon can enter homes through cracks in the foundation or flooring, so higher levels of radon are normally found in the basement and first floor. It doesn't matter if your home is old or new, high levels of radon have been observed in every type of dwelling, in every part of the country.

Not just hype

While there are critics who claim the radon problem is nothing but hype, every major health organization has found that long-term radon exposure causes cancer.

These include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Lung Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers first noticed a high incidence of lung cancer in uranium miners, and subsequent studies on rodents confirmed the results.

Critics will point out that miners were exposed to a higher level of radon than most people would have in their home, but health organizations believe that while the level of radon is important, the length of exposure is more significant.

A miner might be exposed to a high level of radon for 8 hours per day. A homemaker might be exposed to a decreased level, but for 18 hours per day or more. Researchers estimate that the same negative effects are likely due to the increased exposure time in the home.

Additionally, because the home is sealed, the colder months can produce higher radon levels. The same applies to a home closed in the summer because of air conditioning.

Home inspectors

Because more consumers have become aware of potential problems from radon, many home inspectors are performing radon testing as part of their routine. This means that radon has had an effect on both home sellers and buyers.

Joseph, of Morristown, New Jersey was one such buyer.

"Everything was done, all the underwriting was complete and then ... the house inspection! With 99% of the loan process complete, the home inspection showed a radon level above the state standard," Joseph told ConsumerAffairs.com.

"This concerned us because of our newborn, so we decided to hold off on the particular house and keep the home search going," Joseph wrote.

Not just homes

It's not just homes that can harbor radon. In Nevada, parents in the Lake Tahoe area are protesting a plan to consolidate two schools, using Zephyr Cove Elementary, which has high radon levels.

According to the Nov. 3 tests done by Fallon Heating and Air Conditioning, five rooms in Zephyr Cove were above the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended action level of 4 picocuries per liter of air.

Blown to bits

In a November, 2007 episode of the ABC show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," a large home was blown into toothpicks. The home wasn't blown to bits because it was the scene of a past mass murder. And it wasn't destroyed because it was condemned.

ABC blew up the house because it showed high levels of radon.

"Blowing up your home is not the answer to a radon problem, unless you're looking for good TV ratings," said Gary Hodgden, president of Midwest Radon, based in Olathe, Kansas.

"If a home does test at a high level of radon, there are proven methods that reduce the measurements to a safer level," Hodgden said. "But the first step is to test. Testing is the only way to know if there is a problem."

Hodgden says there are a few different testing methods. The first and quickest is the short-term test, generally a charcoal-based test that takes only a few days.

These kits can be purchased for around $15.00 to $20.00, but be sure to note whether this includes the lab reading and a prepaid return mailer.

On the flipside, a long-term test will give you more accurate results of the year-round radon levels. Typically called an alpha-track test, it will take at least 90 days, but 6 months to a year is recommended. Expect to pay $20.00 to $40.00 for this kit.

"If a neighbor's home has a low level of radon, it doesn't mean you shouldn't test your own residence," Hodgden said. "Everything we know about radon shows that one home can show a low level, but the home next door can test high."

Radon is measured in "picoCuries per liter of air," or pCi/L. The EPA recommends a level at or below 4 pCi/L. Achieving a zero rating is impossible because even the outside air typically has a level of 0.4 pCi/L.

The EPA says that although no amount of radon is safe, most homes can be reduced to a level of 2 pCi/L or below. Additionally, while various removal methods exist, one reduction method has proven to reduce radon levels by up to 99%.

Known as the soil suction system, a small fan draws air from under the home and sends the radon gas through a pipe to the outside.

The cost?

"Consumers can expect to pay anywhere from $800 to about $3,000," Hodgden said. "The cost depends on many factors, such as the type of home, area of the country, etc. Most fans have a five-year warranty, so the only real maintenance is making sure the fan is running."

As Hodgden said, the only way to know if a problem exists is to test. You can find do-it-yourself test kits online or at local hardware and home supply stores. You can also locate a radon specialist in your state by contacting your state radon office.

Study provides compelling direct evidence of an association between prolonged residential radon exposure and lung cancer

University of Iowa - 11/5/2007

Two University of Iowa researchers were part of a large multi-center risk.

 

The study, an analysis of data pooled from seven different North American residential radon studies, demonstrates an 11 to 21 percent increased lung cancer risk at average residential radon concentrations of approximately 3.0 picocuries per liter of air, during an exposure period of 5 to 30 years. The lung cancer risk increased with increasing radon exposure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's current action level for residential radon is 4.0 picocuries per liter.

"This analysis, based on the largest radon data set assembled in North America, agrees with a similar large-scale radon pooled analysis performed concurrently in Europe. The North American and European pooling provides unambiguous and direct evidence of an increased lung cancer risk even at residential radon exposure levels below the U.S. EPA's action level," according to R. William Field, Ph.D., UI associate professor of occupational and environmental health and epidemiology, and a co-author of the study, which is reported in the March 2005 issue of the journal Epidemiology. Charles F. Lynch, M.D., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, also contributed to the research.

Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States with an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year related to radon exposure, according to EPA. A radioactive, invisible, odorless gas that comes from the decay of naturally occurring uranium in the earth's soil, radon can accumulate in enclosed areas, such as underground mines and homes.

The initial link between radon exposure and lung cancer had been derived from studies of underground miners, who are exposed at much higher levels to the radioactive gas, and from animal and in vitro studies. Some previous case-control studies reported a positive or weakly positive association between lung cancer risk and residential radon concentrations, while others found no evidence of an association. The North American pooling study was designed to assess the seemingly disparate findings from these earlier studies.

Field and Lynch were part of an international team of researchers who performed the combined analysis of the original residential radon studies, conducted in Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Utah and South Idaho, as well as Winnipeg, Canada. The original studies were funded from several federal sources, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute. The investigators' review of 3,662 cases and 4,966 controls from these combined studies represents the largest analytic radon epidemiologic study ever performed in North America.

"The findings from the previously performed Iowa Residential Radon Lung Cancer Study indicate the risk estimates from this pooled analyses actually may slightly underestimate the true risk posed by prolonged residential radon exposure," Field said, noting potential exposure misclassification resulting from the pooling techniques. Investigators are currently pooling the results from the North American and European studies.