Curing A Radon Problem

Dangerous: In today's hot real estate market, many people skip testing a home for radon, a natural gas linked to lung cancer.

August 22, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ten million homes and 38 million Americans are at risk from dangerous levels of radon gas exposure, according to estimates from the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.

Yet local industry representatives say homebuyers - immersed in today's competitive, seller's market - are forgoing radon testing before settling the sale.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 21,000 Americans die of radon-induced lung cancer each year - a revised number that is 150 percent higher than the EPA's estimate in 1994.

The EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. surgeon general, among others, say all homes should be tested for radon.

Radon experts point out that identifying the odorless, invisible gas in a home is no cause for panic. Testing and remediation are relatively inexpensive. Prices range from $25 for home test kits to $150 for a professional test.

Remediation can cost between $700 and $1,250, depending on the size of the home.

Houses with radon levels that exceed EPA guidelines can reduce exposure to acceptable levels by sealing cracks in the home's foundation and installing exhaust systems to redirect the gas outside the house.

Still, not enough people test their homes, experts said. And Maryland is the only state in the country that does not have a radon program to gather and disseminate information about the dangers of the gas in the state, EPA officials said.

"If you're asking for a radon test, and a Realtor advises you not to do it because of the market, it behooves them to advise you to do it before you move in or to sign something noting that they mentioned that to you," said Marty Emerick, president of Maryland Professional Radon Services Inc. in Pasadena and a radon instructor for the Baltimore Board of Realtors.

Maryland real estate contracts include language that buyers have the right to ask for radon tests. The contracts also highlight EPA statistics that show areas in Maryland have higher levels of radon on average.

Several tests

Testing for radon - a soil gas that typically enters a home through cracks in the foundation - can be done several ways.

Most radon tests stay in a home for two to seven days, although more long-term testing is available.

Charcoal canisters, alpha track, electret ion chamber and charcoal liquid scintillation detectors are the most common tests, according to the EPA. All of those tests are exposed to the air inside a home for a few days. Some are sent to a laboratory for analysis while others provide immediate readings.

Professional radon testers typically use a device called E-PERM, which uses a liquid to help measure the gas levels. Another method employed is called continuous monitoring, a computerized, tamper-resistant test that measures radon levels. The costs of the tests range from $95 to $150.

Some tests can be purchased at hardware stores, mail order or online. They range from $10 to $75.

EPA guidelines stipulate how to close a house to ensure accurate testing. A two- to four-day test requires closing a house no later than 12 hours before the testing begins.

"You are trying to limit the exchange of inside and outside air," explained Julie Somis, vice president of Boswell Building Surveys Inc. in Baltimore and board member of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, a dues-paying group made up of health, environmental and industry professionals.

"Any time you can have an exchange of inside and outside air it can change the pressures of the house, and that can influence the way that radon comes into the house."

1,000 tests

Boswell conducts about 1,000 radon tests each year in Harford, Howard, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties as well as in Baltimore City. The company charges $95 for the E-PERM test and $145 for continuous monitoring.

The EPA has set 4 picocuries per liter of air and above as a high level of radon that should be addressed. A picocurie is a trillionth of a curie, the standard measure of radioactivity. Below 2 picocuries is the preferred range, but below 4 picocuries is the standard, because it is deemed an achievable measure, according to an EPA spokeswoman.

Without guidance from the state, programs for educating and warning the public about the dangers of radon are left up to each individual county.

Baltimore County, like most counties in Maryland, has no such program. Its Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management refers all calls to the EPA's Region 3 Office in Philadelphia, according to Kevin Koepenic, a Baltimore County geologist.

The Indoor Radon Abatement Act, passed by Congress in 1988, provides matching grants to states for radon programs.

Maryland had a radon program in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it fell victim to budget constraints about a decade ago, said Richard J. McIntyre, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Area radon remediation experts said homeowners should make it a point to learn if levels in their house are acceptable.

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