Radon: It's Still Here
In-Home Tests Are Common, but Debate Rages Over Risk Factors
Reprinted from the Washington Post, January 25th, 2003
By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 25, 2003
Whatever happened to America's concern about radon gas, the silent killer that environmental health experts say is lurking in our homes?
Seemingly sexier new toxins such as black mold may be getting all the hype, but radon has not gone away. And, unlike virtually any mold found in homes, radon is considered a proven killer by the nation's major health organizations.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Surgeon General and all major health organizations agree that radon causes 15,000 to 22,000 U.S. lung cancer deaths a year, second only to the 160,000 lung cancer deaths from smoking.
Radon testing has become almost a routine step in the home-sale process in some parts of the Washington area and elsewhere. But some agents say radon has gotten lost in the shuffle of the overheated housing market. And environmental health experts acknowledge that most people who are not actively buying or selling a house have tuned out the radon problem. Federal and state environmental health officials and public health activists say that public interest, which has ebbed and flowed with the headlines on radon for the past 18 years, remains elusive.
To help grab homeowners, the EPA this month launched its second annual National Radon Action Month. Public service ads have appeared on local TV stations and in some community newspapers. Those who test and install radon reduction equipment say much more needs to be done. They condemn the national policy of encouraging voluntary testing and mitigation as "impotent."
On the other hand, there are those who claim the EPA and others are exaggerating the risks and the need for widespread testing. These critics maintain that only smokers are at substantial risk and that the $6 billion or more needed to retrofit at-risk homes is an unwarranted expense.
The EPA says about 85 percent of those likely to die from radon-caused lung cancer would be smokers or former smokers, but it says their deaths and those of 3,000 non-smokers from indoor radon gas can be easily and cheaply prevented.
Test kits generally cost $10 to $20, with the analysis done by mail. Typically, when a house is being sold, a buyer who wants a radon test will hire his own tester, at a cost of $75 to $150, and then the seller typically pays for repairs if the house flunks the test. Mitigation costs $800 to $2,500 and averages about $1,200.
Radon, a colorless, odorless, but deadly radioactive gas, is the result of the natural decay of uranium, which is found in nearly all soils but is concentrated in certain strains of rock and soils. It is a problem in 1 in 15 U.S. homes, the EPA said. These homes exceed recommended levels for making fixes that were set years ago and were based on what could be achieved at a reasonable cost.
Radon becomes a health concern when it seeps in through foundations, basement floors, cracks in walls and other openings and enters living areas, where it is inhaled. The fixes include venting the gas through the roof, preventing the gas from entering the home or adding fans.
Radon ranks as a "Class A carcinogen" and its link to lung cancer deaths, a connection first made in the mid-1980s and reconfirmed as recently as 1998 by the National Academy of Sciences. Because of the classification, the EPA and others for years have encouraged Americans to test their homes and to reduce elevated levels.
The "action" level was set at 4 picocuries -- a picocurie is a trillionth of a curie, the standard measure of radioactivity -- of radon per liter of air, but the EPA now recommends that homeowners "consider" making repairs for anything above 2 picocuries to avoid most risks. Breathing 4 picocuries per liter for a year is the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day, experts say.
In 1998 Congress passed a law setting a national goal of reducing indoor radon to the average level found outside, which is about 0.4 picocuries per liter. The average level indoors, the EPA estimates, is 1.3 picocuries. The 0.4 picocurie goal is not considered technologically achievable yet.
Radon was first recognized as a risk for miners in 1879. The link to cancer was sealed in the 1950s and 1960s. But indoor radon did not hit the headlines until 1984, after Stanley Watras, an electrical engineer at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant, kept setting off radiation monitor alarms as he walked into the plant. It turned out that he was not picking up the radiation at work. Instead, scientists said radon levels in his home were about 2,700 picocuries per liter, or the equivalent of smoking about 135 packs of cigarettes a day. Watras's house sat on a uranium deposit in a geological formation known as the Reading Prong, which runs through portions of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
Soon, other houses in the area were found to have similarly high levels of radon. The discoveries led to study after study showing disturbing results around the country. The reports seemed to be followed by reaction from those who disagreed.
EPA officials hoped the 1998 National Academy of Sciences report would put to rest any doubts. But the debate continues, albeit quietly. Those who have accused the EPA in the past of overreacting still say their minds have not been changed. They also say they hope no one is paying any attention anymore.
Science writer and Rutgers political science professor Leonard A. Cole said this week that he stands by a book he wrote in 1993. It concluded that no study had found a "statistically significant relationship between illness and radon in homes."
"I am fully aware that unusually high levels of radon can pose a health risk, but not generally in the numbers of 4 picocuries or so," he said, adding that the action level should be "closer to 20 picocuries."
Cassandra Chrones Moore, a Cato Institute adjunct scholar and author of "Haunted Housing: How Toxic Scare Stories Are Spooking the Public Out of House and Home," also says she is still a non-believer. She accuses the EPA of a "campaign of toxic terror" forcing scientists to "disprove a negative; they're saying that you can't prove that radon doesn't cause cancer" at 4 picocuries.
EPA officials and others say no one can question the estimates.
David Rowson, director of the EPA's Center for Healthy Buildings, said: "The data on radon is as solid as any data on an environmental health problem that is out there." EPA officials caution that the agency's estimate that 1 in 15 homes have elevated levels may be on the low side. The radon control industry's experience, officials say, is that the problem occurs in 1 in 10 homes.
"It's always been a problem to convince people," said Jonathan Samet, chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Samet chaired the 1998 National Academy of Sciences review. "The problem is you can't see it, you can't smell it, but people are telling you that it can kill you."
Jim DeKrafft, assistant director for Virginia's radiological health program, said: "People think of radon as something that happens naturally, so there's no need to make repairs. If they had a basement full of rattlesnakes they'd do something, but if it's a basement full of radon, they don't."
Because testing is relatively inexpensive, the EPA and other environmental health experts say Americans just should not take the risk of inaction. And the EPA warns that no level of radon is safe.
Among the myths that the EPA counters on its Web site is the notion that there is still a question about the link to cancer. The agency also spells out that radon can be a problem in all types of homes, including new ones, old ones, drafty ones, insulated ones, those with basements and those without basements. According to the agency, the factors that can make one house have a problem and not its neighbor include local geology, construction materials and how the home was built.
The EPA also offers "radon-resistant" techniques for new construction, drafted in 1993 as voluntary guidelines for builders in cooperation with the National Association of Home Builders.
Although Congress and state lawmakers have rejected most attempts to force builders to put mitigation equipment in new homes in "hot" areas, some jurisdictions, such as Howard County, are requiring it. The EPA says its measures could cost builders $350 to $500 per house.
Because federal legislators and many state lawmakers have resisted setting requirements for testers or mitigators, the EPA began to offer consumers lists of professionals deemed "proficient." The EPA has since turned that job over to two private groups, the National
Environmental Health Association and the National Radon Safety Board, but offers a link to those lists on its Web site. Some jurisdictions, including Virginia, require testers or mitigators to be listed with one of the groups.
Radon rose to the top of many local residents' worry lists when early studies showed high readings in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, among others.
Another round of local concern came when the EPA released maps in 1993 estimating risk potential by county. The maps show moderate to high potential for radon in about two-thirds of Maryland. Montgomery, Howard, Frederick and Calvert counties are among those considered Zone 1 areas, for highest potential.
The EPA's map shows Fairfax and Stafford counties among those in Zone 1.
The District was not mapped, but EPA officials say it falls generally into Zone 2, for moderate potential.
The EPA notes that homeowners "cannot predict radon levels based on state, local and neighborhood radon measurements."
Some local environmental health and real estate players say radon's not a big deal anymore because it has seeped into the national consciousness as part of the normal real estate sales process. Some real estate agents say buyers routinely request radon testing and routinely seek contingencies in sales contracts requiring mitigation if the level exceeds the EPA's standard. They also say they regularly hand out the EPA's radon guidebook to buyers and sellers.
"Most of our contracts have testing," said Esther Pryor, managing broker of the Tysons Corner office of Avery Hess Realtors and chairman of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors.
She said sellers "have to disclose" radon levels above the EPA standard if they are aware of them. "It's not a big deal" to fix the problem, she said. "We're seeing numbers like $750 and $1,000 for mitigation. In the scheme of things, when you're selling a house for $300,000 or $500,000, what's a thousand dollars?"
Stephen Levey, a commercial real estate lawyer, was not put off when he had to pay for radon mitigation to sell his Bethesda house 18 months ago, but he was a bit surprised.
Levey said he had requested a test three years earlier when he bought the 35-year-old house. That test came in below the EPA threshold. "When we sold, the buyers asked for a test" because the woman was pregnant, he recalls. "And it came back something astronomical. We thought it must be a mistake, so we did another one."
When the second test also showed a level a couple times higher than the EPA's standard, "we just fixed it," Levey said. "I didn't have any problem doing it, I have two kids myself."
The real estate industry has been "the driver" in motivating people to test and mitigate, the EPA says.
"Nearly 20 million homes have been tested, about 700,000 homes have been mitigated and about a million new homes have been built with radon-resistant features," the EPA's Rowson said.
But EPA officials are among the first to admit that their campaigns often fall on deaf ears, especially for those not involved in selling or buying a house. There are about 110 million housing units in the United States today, and about 1.6 million new starts a year. Some realty agents add that even the sales process has not been a sure bet lately for tracking radon. In the recent overheated sales market, with buyers battling over a limited inventory of houses, some bidders waived all contingencies in sales contracts, including radon tests and home inspections, to get to the top of the heap.
"It's getting back to more normal now, but when people waive these tests, and particularly when they waive home inspections, that scares us to death," said Ruth Dickie, managing broker of Long & Foster's Bethesda Gateway office.
Those in the radon-testing and mitigation industry, however, say much more needs to be done to reach the American public.
In reaction to the EPA's public awareness campaign this month, the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, an industry group, slammed the EPA and the Housing and Urban Development Department for not doing more.
The group said 10 million homes in the United States have levels of radon that exceed the EPA's radon safety standard and that every year 75,000 at-risk homes are being built. Meanwhile, the group says only 75,000 homes were mitigated last year.
Federal policy "seems impotent," the association said, because the program is mostly voluntary and because recommendations to test and mitigate "are seemingly ignored by HUD, a key federal agency responsible for the nation's housing, and many state lawmakers." The group seeks mandatory testing and mitigation for houses getting federally backed loans from the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department loans and wants tax incentives "to drive this environmental solution."
"In 2003, the question is no longer whether radon kills, or whether radon causes lung cancer, but how long policymakers and regulators are going to ignore the fact that radon is killing Americans in the very homes where we believe our families are safe," said Peter Hendrick, executive director of the association.
Cole, the Rutgers professor, could not disagree more.
While radon testing "is automatically part of a real estate transaction" in New Jersey, where Cole teaches and where the EPA has mapped most counties as Zone 1 or Zone 2 areas, Cole said "it is not clear to me that . . . there have been a large number of lives that have been protected as a result of this practice."
Cole says he has long objected to the EPA's "alarmist presentations" and to the "media response that pretty much bought into it."
"The amount of publicity being given to it now, which is nearly zero, is quite appropriate," he said. "The truth is that I've written about a couple issues, such as bioterrorism, that we should be focusing on. We're about right with where our concerns should be -- much more on bioterrorism and much less on radon."
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