Radon testing and home inspectors
As a home inspector I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it said that radon is not a problem, that it is a way for people to make money, and even that it is a conspiracy from the government. Also, it is common for test results to come back high for a home with a recommendation to have a system installed to lower the level and it is ignored. The following information has been compiled from a portion of the radon measurement course from INTERNACHI, KDHE (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) and some of my own observations.
As you read through the following information you will notice that it has taken some very intelligent people to compile the data that backs up the danger of radon. If you start reading about uranium, radium, radon, atoms, and how they all connect I would bet your eyes will glaze over a time or two before it starts to sink in, and you understand it thoroughly. If this is a conspiracy, the amount of work that has gone into it compared to the return would rank it somewhere not far below the trips to the moon that never happened. It is my desire that this article will convince you to test for radon and if the number comes back high do something about it.
As far as the money that is made from the radon business, I don’t believe anyone is getting rich. I do not install any mitigation systems, but I do know what the material costs and the going rate for a typical system and I can do basic math. I can tell you first hand from an inspector’s point of view radon testing is more a cost of doing business than a supplemental income. There is the cost of the equipment, along with material, calibrations, and repairs. The licensing requires a quality assurance plan and the paper work to back it up, continuing education classes, one or two days per year, that not only require missing a day’s wages but cost anywhere from $150 - $250 per day for the class. And then there is the trip to the property two times, the miles and driving time, and the times that the realtor or home owner forgot you were coming and the time sitting in the vehicle waiting or rescheduling another trip with no extra charge. All for a very reasonable price.
(check the website: www.laselleck.com/services-and-pricing.html)
A good home inspector should be concerned about giving you a thorough inspection and that should include the home’s environment. He or she would never tell you, you don’t need a radon test but instead would kindly try to educate you as to why you should have it tested and if it comes back high why you should follow up and get it fixed.
Exposure to Radon Causes Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers and Smokers Alike
Lung cancer kills thousands of Americans every year. Smoking, radon, and second-hand smoke are the leading causes of lung cancer. Although lung cancer can be treated, the survival rate is one of the lowest for those with cancer. From the time of diagnosis, between 11 and 15% of those afflicted will live beyond five years. In many cases, lung cancer can be prevented -- this is especially true for radon.
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. Smoking causes an estimated 160,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. every year, according to 2008 statistics from the American Cancer Society. And the rate among women is rising. In 1964, Dr. Luther L. Terry, then U.S. Surgeon General, issued the first warning regarding the link between smoking and lung cancer. Lung cancer now surpasses breast cancer as the Number One cause of cancer deaths among women. A smoker who is also exposed to radon has a much higher risk of lung cancer.
Radon is the Number One cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, according to EPA estimates. Overall, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is responsible for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year. About 2,900 of these deaths occur among people who have never smoked.
Second-hand smoke is the third leading cause of lung cancer and is responsible for an estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths every year. Smoking affects non-smokers by exposing them to second-hand smoke. Exposure to second-hand smoke can have serious consequences for children’s health, including asthma attacks. It can also affect the respiratory tract and make them vulnerable to bronchitis and pneumonia, etc. It may lead also to ear infections.
The following Web sites provide a wide range of comprehensive information about lung cancer, prevention and treatment:
Why is radon the public health risk that it is?
The EPA estimates that radon is responsible for about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States. Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. Radon is an odorless, tasteless and invisible gas produced by the decay of naturally occurring uranium in soil and groundwater. Radon is a form of ionizing radiation and a proven carcinogen. Lung cancer is the only known effect on human health from exposure to airborne radon. Thus far, there is no conclusive evidence that children are at greater risk of lung cancer than adults.
Radon in air is ubiquitous. It is found in outdoor air and in the indoor air of buildings of all kinds. The EPA recommends that the problem be addressed if a home's radon level is 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) or more. Because there is no known safe level of exposure to radon, the EPA also recommends that the problem be addressed for homes with radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L. The average radon concentration in the indoor air of the average American home is about 1.3 pCi/L. The EPA bases its estimate of 20,000 radon-related lung cancers a year on this number. The average concentration of radon in outdoor air is 0.4 pCi/L, or one-tenth of the EPA’s recommended 4 pCi/L action level.
For smokers, the risk of lung cancer is significant due to the synergistic effects of radon and smoking. For this at-risk population, about 62 people in a 1,000 will die of lung cancer, compared to about seven people in a 1,000 who have never smoked. Put another way, a person who has never smoked and is exposed to 1.3 pCi/L has a 2-in-1,000 chance of dying from lung cancer, while a smoker has a 20-in-1,000 chance. The risk to smokers compared to those who have never smoked is six times greater.
The radon health risk is underscored by the fact that, in 1988, the United States Congress added Title III on Indoor Radon Abatement to the Toxic Substances Control Act. It codified and funded the EPA’s then-fledgling radon program. That same year, the Surgeon General issued a warning about radon, urging Americans to test their homes and to reduce the radon level, when necessary.
Unfortunately, many Americans presume that because the action level is 4 pCi/L, a radon level of less than that is considered safe. This perception is all too common in the residential real estate market. In managing any risk, we should be concerned with the greatest risk. For most Americans, their greatest exposure to radon is inside their homes, especially in rooms that are below grade (such as basements), as well as rooms that are in contact with the ground, and the rooms directly above them.
RADON RISK for PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER SMOKED
If 1,000 people who have never smoked were exposed to this level over a lifetime. The risk of cancer from radon exposure compares to the following:
20 pCi/L about 36 of them would get lung cancer. 35 times the risk of drowning.
10 pCi/L about 18 of them would get lung cancer. 20 times the risk of dying in a fall.
8 pCi/L about 15 of them would get lung cancer. 4 times the risk of dying in a fall.
4 pCi/L about 7 of them would get lung cancer. the same risk as dying in a car crash.
2 pCi/L about 4 of them would get lung cancer. the same risk as dying from poison.
1.3 pCi/L about 2 of them would get lung cancer.
Radon in water
Property owners with wells who have confirmed elevated indoor radon levels should also test their well water for radon. Radon in the water supply can increase the indoor radon level, although, in most cases, radon entering the home through water will be a small source of risk compared to the levels of radon entering through the soil. The EPA estimates that indoor radon levels will increase by about 1 pCi/L for every 10,000 pCi/L of radon in water. (The EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water has developed publications relating to radon in drinking water which can be found at http://www.epa.gov/safewater/radon.html.)
How is radon tested in water?
Before testing for radon in the residential water supply, test the air. If the indoor radon level is high and the home uses groundwater, test the water. If the radon level in the air is low, there is no need to test the water. Test results are expressed in picocuries of radon per liter of water (pCi/L). In general, 10,000 pCi/L of radon in water contributes roughly 1 pCi/L of airborne radon throughout the house. The EPA currently advises consumers to act if the total household air level is above 4 pCi/L.
For waterborne radon, a simple step is to make sure that the bathroom, laundry room and kitchen are well ventilated. If the well water has only moderate levels of radon, this may adequately reduce exposure to waterborne radon. However, if the well has high levels of radon, consider using water-treatment devices, such as granular activated-carbon (GAC) units and home aerators.
What do the results of a water test mean?
It is possible to estimate how much the radon in the water supply is affecting the indoor radon level. The formula to gauge whether indoor air levels are elevated is to subtract 1 pCi/L from the indoor air radon level for every 10,000 pCi/L of radon that was found in the water. For example: If there are 30,000 pCi/L of radon in the water, then 3 pCi/L of the indoor measurement may have come from radon in the water.
If most of the radon is not coming from the water, mitigate the indoor levels and then re-test the indoor air to make sure that the source of elevated radon was not coming from the property's well. If a large contribution of the radon in the house is coming from the water supply, homeowners want to consider installing a special water treatment system to remove radon. The EPA recommends installing a water treatment system only when there is a radon problem found in the water supply.
How is radon removed from water?
Radon can be removed from water by using one of two methods: aeration treatment, or granular activated-carbon (GAC) treatment.
Aeration treatment involves spraying water or mixing it with air, and then venting the air from the water before use.
GAC treatment filters water through carbon. Radon attaches to the carbon and leaves the water free of radon. The carbon may need special handling for its disposal if it is used at a high radon level, or if it has been used for a long time.
In either treatment, it is important to treat the water where it enters the home (at the point-of-entry) so that all the water will be treated. Point-of-use devices, such as those installed on a tap or under the sink, will treat only a small portion of the water and are not effective in reducing radon in the water. It is important to maintain home water treatment units properly. Failure to do so can lead to other water contamination problems. Some homeowners opt for a service contract from the installer to provide for carbon replacement and general system maintenance.
Why does radon in water affect me?
While most radon-related deaths are due to radon gas accumulated in houses from seepage through cracks in the foundation, up to 1,800 deaths per year are attributed to radon from the household's water supply. Showering, washing dishes and laundering can disturb the water and release radon gas into the air.
Radon's Movement into your home
Because radon is a gas, it has much greater mobility than uranium and radium, which are fixed in the solid matter of rocks and soils. Radon can more easily leave the rocks and soils by escaping into fractures and openings in rocks and into the pore spaces between grains of soil.
The ease and efficiency with which radon moves in the pore space or fracture affect just how much radon enters a house. If radon is able to move easily in the pore space, then it can travel a great distance before it decays, and it is more likely to collect in high concentrations inside a building.
The method and speed of radon's movement through soils are controlled by the amount of water present in the pore space (the soil's moisture content), the percentage of pore space in the soil (the porosity of the soil), and the "interconnectedness" of the pore spaces that determines the soil's ability to transmit water and air (called soil permeability).
Radon moves more rapidly through permeable soils, such as coarse sand and gravel, than through impermeable soils, such as clays. Fractures in any soil or rock allow radon to move more quickly.
Radon in water moves slower than radon in air. The distance that radon moves before most of its decays is less than 1 inch in water-saturated rocks and soils, but it can move more than 6 feet, and sometimes tens of feet, through dry rocks and soils. Because water also tends to flow more slowly through soil pores and rock fractures than does air, radon travels shorter distances through wet soils than through dry soils before it decays.
For these reasons, homes in areas with drier, highly permeable soils and bedrock, such as hill slopes, mouths and bottoms of canyons, coarse glacial deposits, and fractured or cavernous bedrock, may have high levels of indoor radon. Even if the radon content of the air in the soil or fracture is within the "normal" range (200 to 2,000 pCi/L), the permeability of these areas permits radon-bearing air to move greater distances before it decays, and thus contributes to high indoor radon.
Radon Entry into Buildings
Radon moving through soil pore spaces and rock fractures near the surface of the earth usually escapes into the atmosphere. Where a house is present, however, soil air often flows toward its foundation for three reasons:
1) differences in air pressure between the soil and the house;
2) the presence of openings in the house's foundation; and
3) increases in permeability around the basement (if one is present).
In constructing a house with a basement, a hole is dug, footings are set, and coarse gravel is usually laid down as a base for the basement slab. Then, once the basement walls have been built, the gap between the basement walls and the ground outside is filled with material that often is more permeable than the original ground. This filled gap is called a "disturbed zone."
Radon moves from the surrounding soil into the disturbed zone and the gravel bed underneath. The backfill material in the disturbed zone is commonly made up of rocks and soil from the foundation site. These also generate and release radon. The amount of radon in the disturbed zone and gravel bed depends on the amount of uranium present in the rock at the site, the type and permeability of soil surrounding the disturbed zone and underneath the gravel bed, and the soil's moisture content.
The air pressure in the ground around most houses is often greater than the air pressure inside the house. Thus, air tends to move from the disturbed zone and gravel bed into the house through openings in the house's foundation. All house foundations have openings, such as cracks, utility entries, seams between foundation materials, and uncovered soil in crawlspaces and basements.
Most houses draw less than 1% of their indoor air from the soil; the remainder comes from outdoor air, which is generally quite low in radon. Houses with low indoor air pressures, poorly sealed foundations, and several entry points for soil air, however, may draw as much as 20% of their indoor air from the soil. Even if the soil air has only moderate levels of radon, levels inside the house may be very high.
Radon in Water
Radon can also enter the home through its water system. Water from rivers and reservoirs usually contains very little radon because it escapes into the air, so homes that rely on surface water usually do not have a radon problem from the water. In big cities, water processing in large municipal systems aerates the water, which allows radon to escape, and delays the use of water until most of the remaining radon has decayed.
In many areas of the country, however, groundwater is used as the main water supply for homes and communities. These small public water works, and private domestic wells often have closed systems and short transit times that do not remove radon from the water or permit it to decay. This radon escapes from the water to the indoor air as people take showers, wash clothes, do the dishes, and use water in general. A rule of thumb for estimating the contribution of radon from domestic water to the indoor level of airborne radon is that water with 10,000 pCi/L of radon contributes about 1 pCi/L to the level of radon in the indoor air.
The area’s most likely to have problems with radon in groundwater are areas that have high levels of uranium in the underlying rocks. For example, granite in various parts of the United States are sources of high levels of radon in groundwater that is supplied to private water supplies.
Also check the bottom of the page, “myths and facts” about radon at:
Asbestos was a popular industrial material for most of the twentieth century, used because of its ability to insulate and act as a fire retardant. It is still used in some parts of the world such as India and China. We know enough about the risks now, though, that it is banned in more than 50 countries and for most uses in the U.S.
Asbestos in the home
One of the places you might find asbestos in a home is the ductwork, although you don't really know without sending a sample to a lab. A qualified inspector can tell you he or she suspects asbestos but only a qualified laboratory can tell you for sure. If you live in an older home and have rigid ductwork that has an off white or yellowish fabric like coating or covering, there is a chance it’s asbestos.
What health problems does asbestos cause?
The big three diseases listed on all the asbestos websites are:
Asbestosis is an inflammation leading to shortness of breath, coughing, and other breathing problems. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the protective membrane around the lungs. Lung cancer is well known because so many people succumb to it each year.
The World Health Organization says asbestos exposure leads to these three diseases killing more than 107,000 people worldwide every year. That's a big number. In addition, many more people die of other asbestos-related diseases or suffer various levels of disability.
The problems with asbestos have been known for a long time. The ancient Persians and Romans used the stuff and may have noticed health problems associated with its use. In 1902, asbestos was added to a list of harmful industrial substances in England. Nellie Kershaw, who worked in a factory spinning asbestos fibers into fabric, was the first officially diagnosed case of asbestosis. She died in 1924. You can find information about her on Wikipedia.
The consensus in the medical community is that asbestos is dangerous, which is why it's classified as a known human carcinogen. There's no debate on that point, and the lawyers have had a field day litigating asbestos health problems.
What should you do about asbestos in the home?
If you do find something in your home that you think may contain asbestos, there are two rules: Don't mess with it! Don’t panic!
If you see a coating on your ductwork that you suspect may be asbestos, it's probably not causing a problem if it's undisturbed. Asbestos only becomes a problem if it becomes airborne and gets into your lungs at a high enough dose.
More about asbestos ductwork.
There are no laws or building codes that require homeowners to remove asbestos containing materials from their homes. As for the health risks to your family, that depends upon the type, location, and condition of the material.
From the mid-1950's through the early ’70's, sheet metal air ducts for forced-air heating systems were commonly insulated with a fabric like material that contained asbestos fibers. Similar in appearance were other ducts that were made entirely of this asbestos containing material (ACM). In some cases, close examination is necessary to determine whether these old ducts are composed of asbestos or merely insulated with it.
The material itself is not regarded as a significant health hazard if it is undamaged, securely attached, and not exposed to routine contact. In such cases, the accepted advice is simply to leave it alone. Remember asbestos must be air borne and in heavy concentrations to cause health problems.
When metal ducts are wrapped with asbestos insulation, the ACM is on the outer surfaces, not exposed to the air stream within the ducts, providing little or no opportunity for contamination of the circulating air. If the material is intact, it should be left as is. If it becomes loose, detached, or physically damaged, patching or removal should be handled with extreme care. In some cases, if the damage is not extensive repairs can be made using tape or painting the area to prevent any of the fibers from becoming air borne. Approved respirators should always be worn.
Ducts that consist of ACM are not common, but they do exist in some homes. The interior surfaces of these ducts are covered with metal foil, preventing direct contact of the air stream with the asbestos material. However, if the ducts become punctured or torn, asbestos fibers can be released into the air stream. In that case, repair or removal by a qualified contractor. Removal of the ductwork by a qualified contractor generally entails isolating the area with poly or plastic sheeting to contain any dust or asbestos fibers, wetting the ductwork to contain any fibers, and dismantling and wrapping it with poly or plastic and taking it to the land fill.
For a comprehensive evaluation of your air ducts to determine their level of safety and functionality, it is recommended that you consult a certified, inspector. Expect him to recommend sending samples to an accredited laboratory.
Asbestos siding was very commonly used in buildings and homes from around the 1920s until the 1980's and can still be found in many older homes in the U.S. and Canada. Asbestos siding was made by adding asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, to Portland cement. That cement was then pressed into siding shingles that came in a wide variety of sizes, profiles, and textures. They are very durable, fire-resistant, and absorb paint well.
As with any asbestos product the problem comes when the shingles are broken, cut, or crushed, and the asbestos particles are released into the air and inhaled. The other factor to keep in mind is the only way to determine whether the siding contains asbestos is to have a sample analyzed by a laboratory. Some home inspectors can give you an educated guess as to whether the siding contains asbestos, but it will be just a guess.
The presence of asbestos cement siding should not necessarily be viewed as a serious problem. There are hundreds of thousands of homes and garages with this siding material, and when it is in good shape, the health hazards are minimal.
The presence of asbestos-cement siding, in and of itself, is not a serious drawback. The National Association of Certified Home Inspectors notes the following advantages and disadvantages of asbestos-cement siding:
· Asbestos cement siding is highly fire-resistant and will not burn or melt the way vinyl and wood siding will.
· It resists termite damage.
· It resists rotting.
· It has been manufactured with textures intended to simulate the look of other cladding materials, such as wood grain.
· It is easy to clean and maintain.
· Unlike more porous siding materials, such as wood clapboard, asbestos cement siding will not quickly soak up paint, which allows it to be painted more easily.
· Asbestos cement siding is very brittle and can be easily chipped, cracked or broken.
· The use of a pressure washer for maintenance can crack the siding and lead to moisture intrusion, if the pressure setting is high enough.
· Asbestos cement can be dangerous if pulverized by sawing, sanding, breaking, etc.
· It is difficult to find replacement siding for repairs.
· This product cannot be refurbished, unlike other forms of siding. Wood clapboard, for example, can be sanded and re-painted, and cedar shake siding can be sand-blasted and re-stained. Either of these methods can restore wood close to its original state. But this is not possible with asbestos-cement siding.
· It is no longer considered aesthetically desirable.
Why removal should be avoided
Despite some inherent advantages to asbestos-cement siding, and despite the inherent dangers of disturbing it through removal, some homeowners insist on removing it. But this should be carefully considered. A better strategy may be to cover it over with new siding, which effectively seals in the asbestos material. This is usually the preferred method of dealing with asbestos building materials. Most siding companies are well-experienced at techniques for covering over existing asbestos-cement siding with new vinyl, aluminum, or a newer form of fiber-cement siding. If a siding company removes an outer layer of siding and finds an older layer of asbestos-cement siding beneath, the standard procedure is simply to cover it over with new siding rather than remove it.
Removing the asbestos-cement siding, in addition to the health hazards involved, only adds more work to your project and will cost that much more. Removing asbestos cement siding may not be a simple matter of calling up a local contractor. Depending on where you live you may need to obtain special permits and have a special asbestos remediation company perform the work. Such work can be done by a homeowner, but special procedures and disposal methods must be followed.
A home that has enclosed the old asbestos-cement siding with new siding is perfectly acceptable to home inspectors and real estate assessors, and it rarely has any negative effect on home values.
What if you find asbestos in your home? Do not panic if asbestos is found or suspected in your home. Just because your home has materials that contain
asbestos does not mean your health is in danger. If the ACM is in good condition, leave it alone and do not disturb.
Leaving ACMs alone is the least costly option.
Consider educating children living in the home about the danger of asbestos. Some helpful tips follow:
• Leave undamaged ACMs alone.
• Limit children’s access to suspected ACMs.
• Employ services of trained and licensed handlers.
• Avoid disturbing suspect ACMs.
• Do not vacuum, dust or sweep damaged ACMs.
• Do not grind, crush, pulverize or use power tools on suspected ACMs.
• Wet ACMs and wrap in plastic, if you have to transport them through the house.
My goal is to have a series of articles that deal with items that may be found on the home inspection report. There will also be articles on choosing a home inspector and a realtor. This information will be based on my experience in the construction industry as well as information I research. I welcome your comments. If you have a question or would like to see an article on a particular subject please ask.