Radon is everywhere – not just in your home

real estateA recent bill introduced in the County Council local to me reminded me of a column I wrote almost ten years ago about radon. In line with some other “consumer oriented” bills adding burdens on the home seller, Montgomery County Council Bill 31-15 has home sellers conducting radon tests and providing the results along with estimates to reduce actionable levels before entering into a sales contract.

According to the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection (montgomerycountymd.gov/dep): “Radon is an invisible, radioactive gas created during the natural breakdown of uranium in rocks and soils. It is found in nearly all soils. Radon typically moves up through the ground and into homes and buildings through cracks and other holes in the foundation, although there are other radon sources.” Radon is naturally occurring and everywhere; however, it becomes problematic when the gas builds up in enclosed areas. If your Montgomery County home was built after 1995, chances are that you already have a passive radon mitigation system built in, as required by code. However, a passive system may not be enough, and older active systems may need additional venting as radon concentrations may change over time. The only way to know if there is a radon problem in your home is to test for it.

In January 2005, then Surgeon General Richard Carmona issued a warning on radon (surgeongeneral.gov/news/2005), saying: “Indoor radon gas is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and breathing it over prolonged periods can present a significant health risk to families all over the country. It’s important to know that this threat is completely preventable. Radon can be detected with a simple test and fixed through well-established venting techniques.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s “Radon Gas” fact sheet (mde.maryland.gov), home owners in all counties and Baltimore City have reported high levels of radon in their home. Some have reported test results that indicated levels of 200 picocuries per liter, which is 50 times the EPA action level. The risk of lung cancer spending a lifetime in a home where the radon level is 10 picocuries/liter is similar to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a “Home Buyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon” (epa.gov/radon/pubs/hmbyguid.html). Testing is relatively easy. There are two types of tests: Passive testing devices are not powered and are sent to a lab for analysis after exposure (these devices can be purchased at most hardware stores); Active testing devices are powered and continuously measure and record the amount of radon decay in the air (these devices can detect test interference). The EPA recommends taking action when existing radon levels are at 4 picocuries per liter or higher; however, exiting levels between 2 to 4 picocuries per liter may still pose a risk.

Although most warnings we hear about radon refers to our homes, actionable levels of radon can exist in any building – public or private. According to the EPA, a nationwide survey of radon levels in schools revealed that 1 in 5 has at least one schoolroom in use with radon above the action level of 4 picocuries per liter (epa.gov/radon/pubs/schoolrn.html). Former National PTA President Kathryn Whitfill was quoted to say, “EPA’s national survey of schools produced some alarming results about concentrations in our children’s classrooms. Public awareness must be raised about the hazards of radon…All schools must be tested to determine if there is a problem, and schools must inform parents of the results. We cannot ignore this problem.

Copyright © Dan Krell

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