Hidden Danger in Homes- Part One

Joy Hollowell

Updated 2 years ago

If you’ve purchased a home in Maine, chances are you were asked about a radon test.It’s typically offered during a home inspection.Maine ranks in the upper third of the nation when it comes to high levels of radon.So why are only about one-third of all homeowners in our state testing for the toxic gas?Joy Hollowell takes a closer look at what radon is and why all of us need to be concerned about it.===Radon comes from Uranium, which is found in granite. That means there’s a heck of a lot of it in our state. You can’t see radon, and you can’t smell it, but you can get sick from it. In fact…”Radon probably ranks as one of our top environmental health issues.”Dr. Andrew Smith is a state toxicologist. He says radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, behind smoking.”Radon is a radioactive gas,” explains Dr. Smith. “As it decays, it releases radioactive particles and these particles cause damage to the cells that line our lungs as we inhale them.”So how does this gas get into our homes? It comes from the ground, mostly soil and in some cases, well water. It doesn’t matter whether your house is old or new, and it also doesn’t matter where you live.”Radon doesn’t come out of a rock, it only comes off the surface,” says Bob Stilwell, Radon Section Leader with the Maine Division of Environmental Health’s Radiation Program. “So if you have a big ole’ hunk of ledge, the only radon that is going to be coming into your home is the stuff coming off the top. But when you take that same hunk of ledge and grind it up into sand and gravel, wonderful stuff to build a home on, then every little particle can release radon off of the surface.”Radon can only be detected in homes through an air or water test. It’s measured in units known as picocuries. A reading of four or higher is when the state recommends fixing the problem. However…”If you actually go and look at the health risk numbers, when you’re looking at radon at four picoliters or even two picocuries per liter, half of that level, we’re still looking at several times higher risk than is normally allowed for human carcinogens,” warns Stilwell.Now that you have that baseline, here’s where things get alarming. The EPA has put out a map showing radon levels in the United States. Maine is covered in red zones. They all have a predicted average indoor radon screening level greater than four.”The highest confirmed radon level we’ve seen down in the Sebago Lake area was 1,200 picocuries per liter,” says Stilwell. “In the Bangor area, Hampden and down toward Ellsworth, there’s a lot of high radon levels, a couple hundred pico liters in some spots isn’t too uncommon. Most places in the state, getting up to 25, 50 picocuries per liter is more common.”With those kinds of numbers, it begs the question- why aren’t more of us checking for the radioactive gas in our homes? Both Stilwell and Dr. Smith believe part of the problem is that radon testing isn’t mandated by the state. “Right now, what we mostly rely on are housing transactions,” explains Dr. Smith. “One of the things you would check off to know before you finalize your transaction is testing for radon. And we’re realizing that strategy alone is not sufficient. So we clearly need to do better than that. We’ve recognized that and now it’s a question of identifying the resources to take it to the next level.”===For more information on radon testing, log onto www.MaineRadiationControl.org.In 2009, Maine passed a law requiring radon testing in all residential rental properties. Landlords currently have until March of 2014 to complete that process.Dr. Smith tells TV 5 the state has tracked radon test rates since 2005. Other than the jump we saw between 2005 and 2006, testing rates have remained constant at about 30%. Meaning, we have not been making much progress with increasing testing rates at least as of 2010. Year % Homes Reporting Tested for Radon2005 19%2006 28%2009 32%2010 30%Below is a list of Initiatives to promote radon awareness / radon testing over the past decade ….* At least since 1995, testing air quality for radon has been listed on the standard purchase and sale agreement. As we discussed, we still view housing transactions as one of the best times to test for radon because financing that can support treatment. But one thing very puzzling to us is why we have not seen more of a gradual increase in radon testing over time given that most purchase and sale agreements call attention to testing air for radon, and there are 20,000 to 30,000 housing transactions each year. Again, puzzling.* We began to ramp up our own efforts on radon education and outreach around 2004 – starting with a new well water brochure that addressed testing for radon in water and air, along with other known water quality concerns. This brochure is being distributed through town offices in about 200 communities known to have a high reliance on private well water. * In 2005 we began tracking home testing rates for radon – so we could evaluate our efforts to improve testing (the data above)* In 2005, we worked with EPA on their new PSA to promote indoor air testing for radon, which aired during that year, and may very well be responsible for the jump we saw in 2005 – 2006 (we don’t have another good explanation).* In 2006/2007, we developed radon “tip sheets” , 1-pager’s for distribution via website and use by testing laboratories to try to make radon information more understandable and accessible.* In 2009 a new law passed requiring radon testing in rental property, which was modified in 2011 to extend to 2014 the date by which radon testing must have occurred* 2010 to present, Bob has spent a lot of time training landlords and property managers about radon testing and mitigation* In 2011 we successfully competed for a federal CDC Healthy Homes grant that provided us dedicated resources to approach radon, carbon monoxide, well water, bed bugs, and other home safety issues in a more coordinated and efficient way. We began working with a number of communities to train them on radon education and materials so they could undertake their own local outreach efforts. But the 2012 federal budget defunded this new initiative, and we are thinking on how else to sustain this new initiative.”The bottom line is since 2006, we have not been very successful at increasing test rates for radon in Maine despite our efforts,” says Dr. Smith. “We need to figure out how to do better. Hopefully the new legislative requirement for testing in rental property will help. But clearly, our strong reliance on voluntary testing during housing transactions as the cornerstone of our strategy for promoting radon testing is not sufficient.”


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