My $1,200 Radon Job
The Least Sexy Home Improvement Could Be a Lifesaver
It might be the ugliest home improvement. Last month, I finally did something about my radon problem.
Two men came and drilled a five-inch-wide hole in my home’s bottom floor. They attached a suction system of white pipes and a big round fan to draw air — and radon — from underneath the house and vent it out through a black pipe stuck in the roof. The work took six hours and cost $1,200 — about what I paid a pro to retile my bathroom.
Most homeowners have heard about the health hazards of radon, a radioactive gas that emanates from rocks, soil and water. Outside, it’s relatively harmless, but inside it can collect in dangerous concentrations, seeping in through cracks in the home’s foundation and other openings. Radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, and one in 15 homes has an elevated level prior to treatment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency estimates 750,000 to 1 million U.S. homeowners have taken radon-reduction steps over the years and says those steps, along with techniques in new construction, have helped prevent 6,000 deaths.
Despite the risks, radon until recently has ranked pretty low on many homeowners’ action lists, including mine. You can’t see, smell or taste it, which makes it — unlike mold — easy to ignore. The federal government recommends but doesn’t mandate remediation for homes with elevated levels. And let’s face it: In the scheme of renovations, there are sexier ways to drop 1,200 bucks than drilling a fat hole in the basement.
But as homeowners and builders rush to make dwellings healthier on all fronts — from nontoxic paints and organic lawns to formaldehyde-free kitchen cabinets — radon is emerging as a hot button in both new construction and resales. The National Association of Home Builders’ Green Building rating program, which kicked off in February, requires installation of mitigation systems in certain radon-prone regions. Last year, the EPA launched a campaign encouraging the use of radon-resistant materials in new construction — such as plastic sheeting under a home’s slab and a built-in vent pipe where a fan can be attached. New studies are examining whether granite and other stone countertops play a role.
“As people become more interested in the green lifestyle, it encompasses radon as well,” says EPA spokeswoman Kristy Miller. It has taken time to build public awareness, just as it did with smoking, she says. “We’ve been on that for 45 years or more. With radon, now we’re seeing a culmination of all these issues.”
In 2006, 10.6% of single-family detached homes were built with active radon-reduction systems in place, nearly double the percentage in 2001, according to the national home builders group. State and local building codes in nearly half the states mandate some level of radon control, and the number is on the rise, says Peter Hendrick, executive director of the not-for-profit American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists. A number of local groups, like the Pennsylvania Builders Association, encourage members to spend a bit more up front to install radon-reduction systems. “I would encourage any builder that it’s the right thing to do — it’s cheap to put in and it’s in the client’s best interest,” says member Frank Thompson of Sweetwater Builders, near Pittsburgh.
As for resales, while no federal or state regulations mandate home radon testing, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory in 2005 urging all Americans to have one done. The majority of states have some form of disclosure law requiring the home seller to inform the buyer about property defects, such as radon — but only if the seller knows about them. Many experts believe this discourages testing and say a better model is an Illinois law that took effect this year. It requires sellers to provide information about radon risk in general, whether the home has been tested or not.
Meantime, some radon labs say they’re seeing a steady rise in testing. Sales of radon test kits have jumped 40% in the past five years at Radon Testing Corp. of America, a major national testing lab in Elmsford, N.Y. “The number of prospective home buyers asking for tests has increased even though the real-estate market has dropped,” says RTCA’s president, Nancy Bredhoff.
There is concern, though, that the push for more testing and remediation is overkill, burdening home builders and potentially slowing sales in a tough housing market. And while most scientists agree about radon’s long-term risks, some question the benefits of reduction efforts. “Only after many years would a successful radon abatement program begun today be likely to reduce the number of lung cancers, and then only by a very small percentage,” according to the Web site of the Health Physics Society, a scientific and professional organization focused on radiation-safety issues.
Where I live, in a rocky New York county, the indoor radon average is slightly above the government’s recommended take-action level of 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). My home was built in 1978. When I purchased it in 2003, the seller neglected to stipulate on the required disclosure form if the home had been tested for radon. (In the haste of the deal, I didn’t notice.) When I tested, the levels came back between 5 and 13 pCi/L — a level higher than the EPA standard but not off the charts, according to pros I talked with. Most suggested retesting down the road, and when I did, the levels still hovered around 5 to 6 pCi.
Since my score could present a selling problem later, I decided to take action. Unfortunately I had to start from scratch, installing an “active soil depressurization system,” which pulls air from underneath the home and reroutes it outside, often through the roof. These types of systems reduce radon readings below the 4 pCi action-level in 99.9% of cases, according to Bill Angell, chairman of the World Health Organization’s Radon Prevention and Mitigation Working Group, which plans this year to release standards for radon resistance in new homes and reduction in old ones. “Virtually never do we find a home we can’t get below the threshold for action,” he says. Other tactics include sealing basement cracks and installing a special ventilator.
The soil depressurization technique I used is called a “sub-slab suction” system, and involves a fan and piping that is drilled through the floor slab and routed up through hidden areas, like closets, and then typically into an attic and then outside. An alternative is to run the pipe up the home’s exterior, where it is more likely to be visible. The cost of fixing an existing home typically ranges from $800 to $2,500; the cost to builders to install similar measures in new homes ranges from $350 to $500.
After checking reputations with local real estate agents, I called several pros for bids. (Many state health departments list qualified contractors; for those that don’t, the EPA offers standards to be followed.) Each one pronounced my home “very difficult” because the lower level was all living space (hard to drill a hole inconspicuously) and I had no main attic (Where to put the fan?). The man I ultimately hired, David Barber of Acceptable Environment in Newburgh, N.Y., suggested drilling in my garage, which shares the home’s concrete slab, and running the pipe and fan though a small attic space in there.
The upside: It isn’t an eyesore. The downside: I can hear the fan’s whoosh every time I park the car.
A week after Mr. Barber mitigated, I ran a new radon test. The result: 2.8 pCi/L — about a point below the federal limit. I’m safer on the home-sale front, but because I am in my home’s lower level a lot, I may pay Mr. Barber another $150 to run a second pipe from beneath a lower-level stairwell to the garage attic fan. My goal: getting down to at most 2 pCi/L, a level that puts my lifetime risk of radon-related lung cancer as a nonsmoker at 4 in 1,000, according to the EPA. Meantime, I’m focused on finishing a happier renovation project: the kitchen, where I hope the only gas I’ll think about is from my new range.
By GWENDOLYN BOUNDS