I tend to be one of those folks who prefers to err on the side of caution. For example, I’m a retired firefighter so you will understand why the first thing I did for my adult daughters wherever and whenever they moved around the country, was to install new smoke alarms in their new residences. Now they are both married, but I still check their smoke alarms whenever I go to visit with them. So you can see that safety is an important issue for me. Anyway, when my wife and I bought our two-bedroom home in 1981, I knew that I would have to build a third bedroom in the basement to allow my eldest daughter to have some privacy from her much younger little sister. Once done, I was proud that I had been able to provide my family with a home of our own in which we felt safe and secure.
Then, approximately 3 years later, our sense of security was shaken as we learned about a radioactive menace that we had likely been exposing our eldest daughter to. That menace was radon gas. The health hazards of radon had been identified years before in uranium mine workers, but no one had realized that radon was seeping into America’s homes, and at sometimes alarming levels.
That changed in December of 1984, when Stanley Watras, an engineer involved with the construction of the Limerick nuclear power plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, inadvertently entered the plant through the exit where radiation screening equipment was positioned. As he entered, he set off the alarms due to his radioactivity, even though he had yet to enter the plant where the assumed contamination was located. That discovery led to the greater discovery that radon was leaking into Watras’ home and at levels that were nearly 700 times higher than the maximum level considered safe for prolonged human exposure.
The discovery of radon gas in his basement and the subsequent EPA studies since then placed my home, and more importantly, my daughter directly in harm’s way. Needless to say we had our home tested before the year was out and, fortunately for her, the measured radon levels were still in a “safe” level. I emphasize the word “safe” as there is no truly safe level of exposure; however, the EPA felt that setting a level of 4 Picocuries per liter was an attainable level through mitigation that provided a much reduced risk from prolonged exposure.
So why, you might ask, am I offering you this little history lesson? The reason is pretty straightforward. I perform home inspections and also provide radon testing. Full disclosure, yes, I do have a financial interest in your choice to have radon testing performed. But that’s not my motivation. I am a father of children living in a home in one of the areas with the highest average levels of radon, where it is estimated that more than 50 percent of those homes have radon levels in excess of the “safe” level. I cannot imagine why anyone would choose to “roll the dice” with their health or with the health of their children or loved ones rather than have their home tested. Yet, I find that fewer than one home inspection client in four requests radon testing without my prompting and only after thoroughly explaining the prevalence and the dangers to them.
In recognition of the hazard and the prevalence of radon in this area of the state, Montgomery County has taken the aggressive posture of requiring a radon inspection as part of all residential real estate transactions, and their average level of radon is not nearly as high as that of Carroll and Frederick counties. To date there has been no similar initiative taken in this part of Maryland, so the onus for testing comes back to those who are about to buy a home and those who live in homes that have not been tested.
I know that there are skeptics who believe that the entire industry associated with radon detection and mitigation is built on skewed data with the intent of bilking consumers out of their hard-earned cash. My mother-in-law held similar conspiracy theories about the health hazards of smoking, but my own mother died from a metastasized tumor with its origins in lung cancer from her years of smoking.
What is certain is that radon gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Unlike smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms, there are no radon alarms that can be purchased from retail suppliers. There is conclusive undisputed medical evidence that radon causes cancer, but at what levels and after how long an exposure seems unclear. Testing from a professional will cost between $100 and $200, and, full disclosure, you can also buy test kits in home improvement centers and hardware stores if you prefer. The cost for mitigation typically runs from $500 to $1,100, depending on whether the home has a sump pump, availability of an electrical circuit and other factors.
My question for you, is it better to “roll the dice” because you don’t want to deal with the cost of mitigation or you believe this is junk science? I’ve been known to drive thousands of miles to help my daughters and do what I could to ensure their safety. Isn’t testing for the presence of a known carcinogen the least that you can do for yourself and your loved ones?
Bob Moody writes from Westminster and is the owner of Diligent Home Inspections LLC, which provides radon testing.