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 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.
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."
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.
"Most people think, 'If I can't see it, can't smell it, can't taste it, everything must be fine,' " said Mike Dietz, president of G.M.D. Construction Radon Mitigation Services in Lisbon.
Once a high reading is detected, Dietz said, the homeowner should contact a licensed mitigator to survey the home. Radon mitigators are licensed by the National Radon Safety Board and the National Environmental Health Association.
Vented from roof
A polluted home usually will register its highest radon readings in the basement. A common solution uses a fan to pump the basement air to the roof for venting.
A mitigation contractor typically will use a sub-slab suction or sump-pit suction system. Installation includes cutting into the basement floor, running a pipe to above the roof and installing a fan either on the exterior or in the attic to create suction.
The position of the vent is critical, Dietz said, because the system needs to make sure the gas is properly removed from the home and not recirculated into the house.
"The buyers need to get involved, because they are the ones who are going to be living with whatever is done," said Dietz, who changed careers from a gas and electric service technician to a radon mitigator 18 years ago, after his wife died of cancer.
The EPA's Radon Contractor Proficiency Program requires a third-party testing company to conduct a proof-of-performance test after the mitigation system is installed. The program provides a referral list of EPA-certified radon professionals and is available on its Web site.
Dallas Jones, president of Radalink Inc., an Atlanta manufacturer of radon monitors, and chairman of the American Radon Policy Coalition, believes the lack of public knowledge about the dangers of indoor radon exposure has led to unnecessary loss of life.
"We have interviewed a number of people who are suffering from lung cancer as a result of radon exposure," Jones said. "Most people never knew what hit them."
High levels abound
And high levels abound in Maryland. Areas with readings above the EPA's action level can be found in many counties.
Emerick estimates that 90 percent to 95 percent of all radon testing is done during real estate transactions. But experts said every homeowner should test for the gas at least once.
"Five years ago, about 30 percent of our testing was done for people who were thinking about selling their house," Emerick said. "When the market got super hot, people started putting off all kinds of inspections. Buyers are now taking it upon themselves to do their inspections - mold and radon testing - after they gain possession of the property.
"The radon problem in your house is a repair, like a roof shingle. Once it's repaired, it's an amenity," Emerick said. "Besides taking out radon, it takes out spores, fungus, molds, and eliminates the need for dehumidifiers in homes. It doesn't affect the fair market or resale value, but it kind of takes the radiological boogeyman off the radon problem."
But in light of the current market, sellers and buyers are wary of anything that might get in the way of a smooth sale. Often it is up to the agents to educate their clients.
"The average person doesn't want to bother with it," said Melvin Knight, a Realtor with the Wyndhurst/Roland Park office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. "And the average real estate agent doesn't want to make any waves in the average proposed contract of sale."
When acting as a buyer's agent, Knight recommends that his clients have the home inspector conduct a radon test but not as a contingency to the sale. "I tell them, 'It only costs about $1,000 to fix it, so let's not make it a deal breaker. Let's not make it the seller's responsibility,' " he explained.
Ilene Kessler, a Realtor with ReMax Advantage in Columbia, takes a similar approach.
"As a listing agent, sometimes I get multiple offers. I explain the cost of remediating radon. In the frenzy of multiple offers, a seller will absolutely choose the offer that nets him the highest price. So I advise buyers who are interested to do the radon test for informational purposes only; so they can be prepared to deal with it," she said.
"The important thing in my area is to let people know that it can be a factor, that there may be an elevated level of radon," Kessler said. "But it is something that can be remediated."
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
Nearly one in 15 homes in the U.S. has a high level of indoor radon.
The U.S. surgeon general and EPA recommend all homes be tested for radon.
Homes with high radon levels can be fixed.
For more information about radon, contact the National Radon Information Line at 800-SOS-RADON or 800-767-7236.