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Radon - Deal with It

The Colorless, Odorless Inspection Killer

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media, September 2013

Congratulations, you are about to move from your duplex condo in Maine to a condo on the sunny beaches of Florida. The purchase price was agreed to and the home passed inspection with flying colors with a closing scheduled in two weeks. All's well, but wait - you just heard from the listing broker that the buyer's radon air test results were received and the reading was 30 pCi/l (PicoCuries per liter). Whar does it mean? After all, you never had a radon air test when you bought the new condo unit years ago.

What it means is the deal is in jeopardy until discussions are held on the issue of radon mitigation and who is going to pay for it. This is hardly an unusual situation in Maine. It happens every day. 

Radon gas is getting a lot of attention in real estate circles these past few years. Just last year, a law was passed in Maine requiring every landlord to test his rental spaces for radon and advise his tenants of the results. He then must mitigate any rented space with radon gas readings in excess of the EPA's standard of 4.0 pCi/l, as the law states the rented space has an "implied warranty of habitability." 

So what is radon gas? It is a naturally occurring, colorless, odorless radioactive carcinogenic gas. It comes out of the ground from the decay of uranium isotopes in granite and limestone deposits, which Maine has in abundance. Both the EPA and World Health Organization agree radon is the leading cause of cancer for non-smokers and causes more cancer deaths than any other single pollutant except for tobacco smoke and more household deaths than even fire or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Something in the Water

Most folks familiar with, radon gas testing are not aware that radon-contaminated water is also a problem. Municipal water has this pollutant under control, but insisted well water can be dangerous not from drinking the water, but from inhaling the steam or mist from showers, cooking, and faucets. In this regard, the EPA recommends water radon levels should be below 20,000 pCi/l. 

Radon gas has been wirh us since man first walked the earth, so why is it a problem now? For one thing, it is partially the result of our energy crisis. As our modern houses have begun to get tighter to prohibit heated air from escaping, they also seal in the radon gases that used to escape our leaking old Victorians and post-war buildings. Currently in Maine) it is estimated one in three homes have high radon gas levels
and one in five have high well water radon levels. Radon gas is odd in that it has a half life of less than 48 hours, but if there are cracks in the foundation walls or concrete slab or if the sump pump pit is unsealed or the service piping into the basement is not tight, radon gas will continuously flow into a house with negative pressure.

Solutions and Costs

So what is a homeowner to do? First, radon testing is easy and inexpensive. Second, once detected, high radon test readings can almost always be reduced below the recommended levels. Maine does not require a homeowner to test for radon. Test kits can be purchased for $20 at local building supply stores and the results can be quickly obtained after sending the kit to a laboratory. 

Though these results can not be used in a real estate transaction) they can give the homeowner an understanding of the indoor air quality of his home while having a heads-up of a possible impediment to a future home sale.

As part of today's standard homebuying due diligence list, most real estate brokers recommend their clients have a radon air test and a water test if the property has a well. These cost less than $200 per test. In Maine, all testing must be done by a certified radon tester. In a real estate transaction, it is recommended a continuous monitoring test device be used rather than the hardware store "canister" or "test tube" kits, as the continuous monitoring devices cannot walk out to the backyard as they monitor the temperature) barometric pressure, and humidity of the environment and thus record if something has changed.

If the readings are high, the radon gas can easily be removed by approved mitigation systems consisting of a PVC pipe run from under the concrete slab up through the house and above the roof with an in-line exhaust fun that vacuums out the gas from under the slab. These systems often cost less than $1,500 and are inexpensive to operate. Similarly, radon water can be treated by charcoal filter canisters lined with, lead. If both, air and water must be treated, the cost is between $2,000 and $3,000. For more information, contact the Maine Radon/IAQ Program at (800) 232-0842, \\www.maineradiationconrrol.org, or www.EPAgov/ofdw/radon/html


 
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