- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Americans seem to flit from one fear to the next, focusing on shark attacks one summer and Alar on apples another, sometimes with justified concern and sometimes merely overreacting. Anxiety about levels of radon gas in homes was elevated years ago, but the issue has faded in recent times. However, the fact that radon receives less attention today in the media does not mean that the risk of radon exposure has disappeared.

Radon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency Web site (www.epa.gov/radon), is a radioactive gas that comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. Radon moves from the ground into the air and into homes through cracks and holes in foundations.

The EPA’s latest Assessment of Risks from Radon in Homes reports that radon causes an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year — more than the estimated yearly death toll from drunken driving (17,400), falls in homes (8,000), drownings (3,900) and home fires (2,800).

The EPA Web site includes a guide for home buyers and sellers that explains why radon testing is important.

One chart compares the risk of radon exposure at different levels with other risks. For example, out of 1,000 nonsmokers exposed over a lifetime to 4 picocuries per liter of radon, seven could get lung cancer, which is equivalent to the risk among the same-size group of dying in a car crash.

“The consequences of elevated levels of radon is that it sets the stage for long-term exposure, which is dangerous to lungs and can eventually lead to lung cancer,” says Arthur Lazerow, president of Alban Home Inspection Service Inc. in Bethesda and co-host of the radio program “Real Estate Today,” Saturdays at 10 a.m. on WMET, 1160 AM.

“New research has preliminarily found links between radon and Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease,” Mr. Lazerow says.

Different people have different opinions about how serious a threat radon poses.

“Long-term exposure to radon has definitely been linked to cancer, but no one really knows what levels create a cancer risk,” says Joseph Walker, president of Claxton Walker & Associates Inc. in Annapolis, a home-inspection firm that performs radon testing, among other services.

“My favorite quote about this was from my uncle, who said, ‘No one ever has a death certificate that reads, “Died of radon,” ‘ ” he says. “The EPA came up with an arbitrary number for the dangerous level, but no one really knows if that measure means anything.”

Radon is odorless, invisible and tasteless, so there is no way of knowing a location has elevated levels of the gas without testing. The EPA and the surgeon general recommend testing all homes for radon regardless of whether the it is changing owners.

“Radon comes up from the ground, and the level of the gas varies in part with different types of soil,” Mr. Walker says. “In areas closer to the coast that are less rocky, you’ll have less radon. In areas with heavy clay, you’ll also see less radon.”

“In the D.C. area, in Bethesda and in Northern Virginia,” he says, “the problem is that you can’t really judge by going from neighborhood to neighborhood. Radon levels can also depend on the house type. Just because the next-door neighbor didn’t have an elevated radon level doesn’t mean your house won’t.”

Radon testing is usually part of a home inspection, but many buyers are choosing to waive an inspection because of the competitive real estate market.

Mr. Walker says that even among buyers who choose a home inspection, only about 20 percent test for radon.

“It’s increasingly common for a contract to mention that a radon test can be done for informational purposes only,” Mr. Walker says.

If the test is done for information only and yields a high level of radon, the buyer, not the seller, would be responsible for fixing the problem because the contract would not be contingent on the test outcome.

“This extremely competitive bidding situation is unique to the D.C. area,” says Brian Koepf, a home inspector with Brian Koepf & Associates Inc. LuxRE Inspections in Reston.

“The first thing that buyers are choosing to drop in order to make their offer more attractive is the radon contingency,” he says. “Some buyers intend to have the radon test done after they move in to the property, but the majority forget about it. Usually, the ones who do it are the ones with babies.”

Mr. Lazerow suggests that one reason buyers are waiving the radon test is that fixing a radon problem later is relatively inexpensive.

“Repairing an elevated radon level costs maybe $750 to $900, so buyers look at that as not that big a deal compared to some other issues,” Mr. Lazerow says.

The EPA recommends that home sellers test their homes for radon before putting them on the market.

The agency also suggests that buyers ask the seller if the home has been tested, and if it has not, that they have it tested themselves.

If a seller knows a home has elevated radon levels or if it has had a radon problem that has been fixed, this information could be subject to disclosure law.

“I talked with several knowledgeable Realtors about this issue of disclosure, and the consensus is that knowledge of a radon level above the recommended remediation level would be a material fact that would have to be disclosed at the time of sale,” Mr. Lazerow says.

“If it wasn’t disclosed and later the buyer discovered that the seller had knowledge of the elevated radon level, then the seller would be responsible for the cost of remediation,” he says.

Mr. Koepf agrees.

“Even if a house is being sold ‘as is,’ sellers are required to disclose all knowledge of defects, including elevated radon levels,” he says. Home inspectors say radon tests cost from $85 to just under $200.

The EPA says passive short-term tests can be accomplished by performing two tests at the same time in the same location for at least 48 hours or by doing an initial short-term test for 48 hours and then a second test later, in the same location as the first.

Active short-term tests can be conducted using a continuous monitor for at least 48 hours.

Radon testing should be done on the lowest level of the home suitable for occupancy, normally a basement family room or playroom that will be used regularly, but not a laundry room, bathroom or kitchen, according to EPA recommendations. Tests should be done with windows and doors closed except for normal entry and exit.

The EPA recommends that a home undergo radon mitigation if the radon level is 4 picocuries per liter or higher. According to the EPA Web site, one out of every 15 homes in the United States is estimated to have an elevated radon level.

Mr. Koepf says he finds that radon levels tend to be lower in the city, and he points out that radon levels in the Washington area are generally not so high as in the Pittsburgh area. Still, some neighborhoods in the Washington region have higher radon levels than others.

“From Bethesda to Gaithersburg, we probably have about six or seven out of ten homes that are OK, meaning about 30 to 40 percent need fixing,” Mr. Koepf says.

“For some reason, there are pockets of higher radon levels near I-270 and Falls Run and in Damascus and Frederick,” he says. “In Virginia, the closer you are to Dulles airport, the higher the levels get.”

Mr. Lazerow says he has found elevated levels from Potomac to Germantown and from Gettysburg, Pa., to Hagerstown, Md.

While the EPA recommends mitigation for any home with a radon level above 4 picocuries per liter, Mr. Walker believes that consumers need not be extremely concerned about a relatively low level of radon.

“If you have 4.1, it’s not that big a deal,” Mr. Walker says, “but if it’s above 20 or so, you should definitely have remediation done. If your radon level is 400 or above, you should definitely be concerned.”

Says Mr. Koepf: “Remediation for radon averages about $900 and works well on homes built in the 1960s or later. It could be more expensive on homes built before 1960.”

The EPA Web site suggests that new-home buyers have the builder incorporate radon-resistant features.

For existing homes, the EPA recommends hiring a qualified radon-reduction contractor to fix a radon problem and says that the national average cost for radon mitigation ranges from $800 to $2,500.

“Remediation must be done professionally, rather than by homeowners,” Mr. Lazerow says. “The equipment is just not available on the common market for consumers.”

The EPA recommends that consumers retest their homes after radon mitigation. Testing also should be performed in a newly built home with radon-resistant features. In addition, the EPA recommends retesting homes every two years to ascertain whether radon levels remain low.

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