Montgomery County Council Was the First to Pass Mandated Radon Testing Law in the U.S.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon gas is responsible for the deaths of some 21,000 Americans a year. The Cancer Institute states that the #1 cause of lung cancer outside of smoking is radon gas. Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a bill some years ago that requires most single-family homes be tested for radon within 1-year before being sold. Montgomery County was the first in the nation to mandate radon testing, as of October 2016, ensuring that buyers and sellers are informed of the possible existence of radon in their homes.
What is Radon Gas?
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from uranium deposits beneath the ground. As the uranium breaks down, it gives off radon gas, an odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas, which then rises and enters your home through cracks in floors, walls, construction joints, service pipes, and sump pump pits. Radon can also be ingested through drinking water with elevated radon levels.
How Does the Gas Hurt You?
If you breathe in radioactive particles over a long period the radiation from the gas breaks down the cells in your lungs and eventually causes lung cancer. This cancer can then spread to other parts of your body. Smokers are at the greatest risk of developing radon-related lung cancer due to the stress already on their lung tissues from smoking.
Who is at Risk?
The EPA estimates that 1 out of every 15 homes in America may have elevated radon levels. In our local area, the geology suggests a high probability of elevated levels of radon gas. Montgomery County is rated Zone 1 by the EPA (the highest level) with predicted average indoor radon screening levels greater than the EPA action level of 4 picocuries per liter or 4 pCi/L.
How Do You Test for Radon Gas?
The EPA and the U.S. Surgeon General recommend that all homes be tested (and monitored) for the presence of radon gas. Testing is relatively inexpensive with in-home test kits being offered for less than $30. These test kits include a radon gas collector that hangs in the basement for 2-7 days and then is sent to a laboratory for analysis. Long-term test kits are also available. Radon levels fluctuate naturally and can be impacted by weather conditions. There are often short contingency periods in real estate transactions to test for the presence of radon. As a result, professional radon testing companies will provide sophisticated equipment to test for radon, resulting in test results in a matter of days at a cost of around $150 – $200.
What Do the Radon Test Results Mean?
Radon is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). A curie, so named after the French scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and their groundbreaking work on radioactivity, is the standard measure for the intensity of radiation in a given material.
The EPA recommends that mitigation steps be taken on a home if the long-term radon exposure will average 4 pCi/L or more. To give you some perspective that level is the equivalent of about 200 chest x-rays.
The issue in your home is that the house is often well insulated and the level of radon gas concentration can build, exposing you to higher levels of radioactivity and the potential health hazard. Interestingly the EPA’s action level of exposure does not mean your home is safe at that level, or even corresponds to some known threshold about a cancer effect. It’s simply the result of the EPA’s cost-benefit calculation (economic cost to reduce risk vs. the economic cost of lost human life). What? Really.
How Do You Reduce Radon Gas Levels in Your Home?
The typical solution for reducing indoor radon gas is the installation of a sub-slab depressurization system. This involves installing a PVC pipe in the basement floor which is connected to a fan. When the fan is running a vacuum is created under the basement floor and the air from below the basement floor is drawn away and released above the roof. There is no underground air entering the home when the fan is running. We recommend you hire a qualified radon mitigation contractor if you want to reduce the level of radon gas in your home. The contractor should have certification and training from either The National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) or The National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). In Maryland, the contractor also needs to hold a Maryland Home Improvement Contractors license (MHIC). The cost for these sub-slab ventilation systems is typically between $1,000 and 2,000 dollars depending upon the configuration and unique properties of your home.
Will Radon Gas Impact My Future Home Sale?
The Montgomery County Council unanimously passed Bill 31-15 which requires a seller of a single-family home to test for radon and give the buyer a copy of the radon test results, as of October 2016. The seller of the property must either perform the radon test or permit the buyer to do so. If the seller performs the test the results must have been from a test performed within one year of the settlement date. There are some exceptions to the new law such as the transfer of a home into a trust, transfers related to divorce, foreclosures, estate sales, and homes that will be torn down by the buyer.
My Final Two Cents on Radon
Radon gas is a health danger. The EPA action level of 4 pCi/L may likely be way above the level of exposure that most people would feel comfortable having over their lifetime (200 chest x-rays anyone?). I would be more comfortable with an action level that was based on the real risk of getting cancer than some cost-benefit analysis made by the EPA. If you walk outside you are likely exposed to ½ picocurie of “background” radiation from radon. Shouldn’t that type of exposure be the goal for indoor air quality? While that may not be practical or technologically feasible today, perhaps all homes should be equipped with an active radon-reduction system to minimize exposure as much as possible.
New homes in Montgomery County require passive radon mitigation systems to be installed by the builder. This essentially gives the new home the required PVC piping (without an active fan) thereby avoiding the need for retrofitting piping like that needed in older homes. As the public learns more about the health hazards of radon, these mitigation systems will likely become a standard feature, just like fire sprinkler systems in new construction and smoke detectors in older homes.