Finally, More Action: Feds Target Radon

Avoiding Policy With PR

Nick Mulcahy

January 03, 2012

January 3, 2012 — In 2012, the federal government will begin more actively promoting radon testing in homes, schools, and other institutions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Radon is the number 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers and is the underlying cause of about 20,000 of the roughly 160,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to the EPA, which is encouraging all Americans to test their homes this winter.

January is National Radon Action Month. Winter is the best time to test because the gas, which usually is released from soil, becomes trapped inside by closed windows and doors.

The invisible odorless gas has been found in every county in the United States, according to the EPA. An estimated 8 million homes have problematic levels of radon.

The effort to raise awareness about radon is part of a large federal initiative — the Federal Radon Action Plan — which was formally announced at the National Healthy Homes Conference in Denver, Colorado, in June 2011.

How come we don't see more action?

In a videotaped interview from the conference, Douglas Kladder, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at the University of California, Riverside, asked rhetorically: "If radon is [a large public health] issue, how come we don't see more action?"

The answer to that question, said David Rowson, director of EPA's Indoor Environments Division, is in the "policy debate" about "the extent the federal government should be involved in regulating homes."

Scientifically speaking, "the radon risks certainly warrant it," he said.

But Mr. Rowson and his fellow government officials are not forcing private householders to conduct testing — they are just encouraging it.

And the federal government is "leading by example" by testing in government-owned properties, said Mr. Rowson. It is potentially a big example, he explained. For instance, the American government "directly controls" 7 million residences in the country, he said.

The extent of the threat of radon is surprising. Exposure to radon in homes and workplaces causes more deaths in the United States than drunk driving, according to EPA statistics from 2003. The gas at high levels is especially toxic in the presence of cigarette smoking, the EPA points out.

Home improvement stores sell radon test kits, which can also be purchased online from Kansas State University. The EPA recommends remediation if the radon level is 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or more in a building. The average indoor radon level is about 1.3 pCi/L in the United States; the average outdoor level is about 0.4 pCi/L.

Any Home

Radon is a radioactive gas and is carcinogenic. "It comes from the natural decay of uranium that is found in nearly all soils," according to the EPA. Radon typically moves up through the ground to the air above and can penetrate a structure through cracks and holes in the foundation like that from service pipes.

"Any home may have a radon problem. This means new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or without basements," according to the EPA.

This Federal Radon Action Plan represents "historic interagency cooperation with the potential to reduce exposure to radon," says the EPA. The participating agencies include the EPA, the General Services Administration, and the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Veterans Affairs. The primary focus is on encouraging testing to reduce and mitigate the gas in homes, schools, and daycare facilities.

This is the first time that the federal government has created "one strategic approach" under an interagency collaboration. The government intends to demonstrate the importance, feasibility, and value of radon testing and mitigation. It will also provide policy, administrative, and economic incentives to encourage testing and mitigation.