Everyone agrees the gas is deadly. But no one requires landlords to test for it.
by Kathleen Schenck
From the June, 2017 issue
A friend has rented an apartment in a duplex near Vets Park for thirteen years. At $200 a month less than most comparable units, the price is right, as is the fenced-in backyard for the mutt he adopted shortly after she was born in the local animal shelter eleven years ago. Nickname: Best Dog Ever.
I'd been reading about the dangers of radon. The invisible, odorless, naturally occurring gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, and south central Michigan is a radon hotspot. According to the Washtenaw County Health Department, tests of indoor air in the Ann Arbor zip codes find an average of 5-5.9 picocuries of radiation per liter of air. The EPA says that while no amount is harmless, any level over 4 pCi/L is cause for action (the World Health Organization uses 2.7 as its danger threshold).
I wanted to know if I needed to worry about my own apartment near downtown. The health department sells radon test kits for $10, but it's located on Zeeb Rd., and I don't have a car. So I made a deal with my friend: I'd pay for his test if he drove me out to the office so I could pick up a kit of my own.
We hung the test kits' charcoal envelopes from ceiling fans in our respective bedrooms for three days, then mailed them off. Two days later, my test results came back: just one pCi/L. His? Twenty-two--more than five times the EPA action level.
My friend's landlord is decent, but he's never tested the property for radon--not when he bought it twenty years ago, and not since. Today, many home buyers know to test for radon before closing on a sale and to have a mitigation system installed if high levels are detected.
But what about renters? Approximately half of Ann Arbor households are rentals.
"It is undeniable based on all the latest studies that radon gas can cause
lung cancer," explains a local radon professional on the phone while driving in his truck to a work site. He has spent the last thirty years testing for radon and installing mitigation systems in the area, but asked not to be named because he already has more work than he can handle.
He says interest in radon testing has grown dramatically during his years in the business. "In the old days, I may have done three to four hundred homes a year," he says. "Now it's over eight to nine hundred." But he's hardly ever called to check rental units--"maybe less than one thousand of over twenty thousand homes I've done."
The City of Ann Arbor housing code has many health and safety regulations, but it mentions radon only once: "No part of a cellar shall be used as habitable space unless approved by the Housing Board of Appeals based on a city inspection report showing that the following standards have been met." The last standard, after smoke detectors and absence of mold: "A radon test, conducted by an independent accredited contractor, indicates acceptable levels of radon."
"That is a flawed policy," exclaims the radon professional. "Only tested once in its lifetime? Really?!"
The EPA recommends testing every five years if there's no history of problems. If high radon levels are detected and a mitigation system is installed, it suggests retesting every two years.
Retests are needed to make sure the system is still working properly--and something Ann Arbor police officers wish the city had done at their longtime headquarters in City Hall. In the late 1980s, officers using home test kits found high radon levels in their basement offices. Professional tests confirmed the hazard, and a mitigation system was installed in the early 1990s. It failed sometime thereafter--but because there was no follow-up testing, no one knows exactly when. It was only in 2008 that officers, worried about recent cancer diagnoses among their colleagues, again brought in home test kits. They found levels in the high teens to low twenties. When the AAPD moved to the new Justice Center next door, most of its former space was demolished and replaced by a rain garden.
Levels often are highest in basements, but because radon is a gas, it goes where it goes. My friend's apartment is a ranch-style building with no basement and windows on three sides. Even the seventh story of a seven-story building ought to be tested, explains Aaron Berndt of the state's Michigan Indoor Radon Program (email@example.com), "due to direct pathways from elevator shafts" and other places the gas could get through. "Anything has the potential for high radon," Berndt says, adding that levels "can fluctuate day to night, season to season." His advice mirrors the EPA's: "We encourage people to test every five years," Berndt says. "If a mitigation system is in place, that home should be tested every two years."
But it's just a suggestion--no Michigan law requires either homeowners or landlords to check radon levels. Only one state, Maine, mandates regular tests in rental properties. Radon levels in Maine average 4.1 pCl, less than Ann Arbor's 5-5.9.
I called several local property management companies to ask if they test for radon. "For what?" asked the woman who answered the phone at CMB Properties. "Radon," I repeated. "I don't know what that is," she said. She put me on hold, then came back on the line and said, "No, we don't test for that." The receptionist at Wickfield Properties asked me to repeat "radon" twice, then asked me to call back later. Subsequent calls and emails had not been answered as the Observer went to press.
At J. Keller Properties, the receptionist knew what I was talking about. When I asked how often they test for radon, she replied, "Here and there." She added, "When the [city] inspector tells us to."
Coincidentally, my apartment had been inspected by the city when I was doing my test. Since windows are supposed to stay closed during the test, I worried that the inspector might have opened them and phoned the building department. I chose an extension at random and lucked into the guy who'd been in my apartment, Jeff Williams.
Williams remembered seeing my test kit and assured me that he'd only opened the windows briefly, to make sure they worked. He confirmed what I'd found in the building code, that the city requires a radon test only when someone requests a variance to occupy a cellar. When I asked if there is any other time an inspector would require a radon test, he answered, "I wouldn't know," and referred me to his supervisor.
City building and rental services manager Lisha Turner-Tolbert later emailed to confirm that I'd found the code's only reference to radon. She referred me to the city's new building official, Glen Dempsey, who emails that the Michigan Residential Code requires that new housing be prepared for mitigation if needed--but "testing for radon is not required."
At least the city's biggest landlord has tested its buildings. "In my opinion, this is a place where people cut corners," says McKinley CEO Albert Berriz, "and this is a place that you can't cut corners." Berriz says all of the company's Ann Arbor apartment complexes are financed through federal programs that require radon testing before the loan is issued; all were tested, and none required mitigation. The financing programs, however, don't require ongoing testing.
At least one west-side complex seems to have a mitigation system: the distinctive plastic vent pipes are visible on the wall of Jackson West Apartments. But when and why they were installed remains a mystery: once I explained that I wasn't calling to rent an apartment, no one there was interested in talking to me.
When purchasing my tests on Zeeb Rd., I met with Angela Parsons from Washtenaw County Public Health. We followed up via email. She writes, "Unfortunately, there are essentially no protections for tenants for market-rate rental properties." The county sells approximately 600 radon test kits a year, but it is "generally homeowners" who are doing the buying. "To my knowledge, rental property owners do not routinely test for radon. I am sure that there are some that have tested and fixed any known issues, but I don't know any specifics." The county building code requires radon-resistant construction for new residential buildings, but there are no regulations for existing ones.
The leading cause of lung cancer is still smoking--but "radon is number two," emails Ken Fletcher, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Michigan and Ohio. And combining the two compounds the risk: according to a World Health Organization fact sheet, "smokers are estimated to be 25 times more at risk from radon than non-smokers." The bottom line: "Smoking along with high radon levels is very dangerous long term," Fletcher emails.
This being Ann Arbor, I contacted a physician at Michigan Medicine to inquire about other kinds of smoking. "Anything organic (tobacco leaf, marijuana leaf) that you burn and inhale has particulate matter and carcinogens in it that can promote development of cancer," emails Doug Arenberg, a specialist in pulmonary and critical care medicine whose clinical expertise includes early detection and prevention of lung cancer. "Tobacco may have more carcinogens, or it may just be that cigarettes tend to be consumed at a greater volume than joints. Either way, if people are worried about getting lung cancer, the less foreign organic burned material they inhale the better, radon or not."
A residential radon mitigation system costs "between $800 and $1,500," says the state's Aaron Berndt. That's less than one month's rent in most one-bedroom apartments in this town. I've signed four leases in Ann Arbor, each with a clause warning about the dangers of lead paint--the feds require it. But there's no such requirement for radon.
My friend shared his radon test result with his landlord, who gave him a radon detection device that plugs in. My friend has it in the living room (as opposed to his bedroom, where he got that 22 pCl reading), about fifteen feet from his front door. Even with fresh air coming in each time he, his roommate, or his dog enters or exits, the device repeatedly sounds an alarm to warn him that his radon level is above the EPA action level. He's hoping mitigation will follow soon.
So if you're looking for a place to rent, ask two questions: When was it last tested for radon, and what were the results? From there you can discuss mitigation systems and exercise your right to shop around. We do not want to be Leaders in lung cancer, nor Best at ignoring life-and-death risks.
From Calls & Letters, July 2017
"Your article stated that everyone knows that radon is dangerous," Loren Anderson emailed after reading our June feature "Renting Radon." "The link above shows otherwise."
The link was to a website called forensic-applications.com, which states that "at concentrations typically seen in homes, as the level of radon increases, the risk of lung cancer goes down, not up." Dismissing the EPA's assessment of radon risks as "political" rather than "scientific," it accuses the agency of ignoring "the work of University of Pittsburgh professor Bernard Cohen, whose research has documented the inverse relationship between radon and rates of lung cancer."
We emailed University of Iowa public health prof Bill Field, who served on the Center for Disease Control's Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, to ask about Cohen's work. He replied that the study "has been widely discredited by the National Academy of Science, EPA, and others."
According to Field, Cohen "used average county radon concentrations to estimate an individual's radon exposure" but didn't allow for the fact that counties with lower radon concentrations also tend to have higher smoking rates. The slight inverse association that Cohen found between radon levels and cancer rates, Field writes, "is likely due to the lower socioeconomics related to smoking and less weatherization and use of AC." As we wrote, quoting a World Health Organization fact sheet, "smokers are estimated to be 25 times more at risk from radon than nonsmokers."
Field referred us to a paper by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. It concludes: "Despite the potential statistical power of ecologic studies, arising from their use of large populations, their inability to overcome ecologic bias, and especially their limited capacity to counteract the strong confounding influence of smoking risk factors, greatly compromises their value in assessing the risk of lung cancer from residential low dose radon exposure."
Anderson is correct: not everyone knows that radon is dangerous. Here's to science sorting that out.
[Originally published in June, 2017.]
On July 5, 2017, Evan Jones wrote:
Thank you for covering this issue! Radon is an essential public health issue! Keep up the great work!
On July 6, 2017, Carolyn Koke wrote:
A stealthy killer, radon gas will continue to be a significant health risk for anyone who is uninformed. Who wouldn't want to prevent lung cancer? Thank you for a thorough and important article.
On July 6, 2017, Bob Wood wrote:
Thank you for this article! The health risk from radiation is well known and well documented. The 22 pCi/l mentioned in the article is measurement of radiation the laboratory found in the sample. Calling it fake news does not make it fake news, it just makes it a story you do not like.
On July 6, 2017, James wrote:
Great segment, My Realtor recommended The Radon Test during our home purchase. We found Elevated levels and were able to have PRO-Tech fix the home at the sellers expense.........
On July 6, 2017, Steve Tucker wrote:
A great article about a health risk often overlooked by many, including the rental market.
On July 7, 2017, Gloria Linnertz wrote:
Thanks Kathleen!Your are helping to save lives. Tenants are overlooked by our governments and institutions many times when it comes to insuring a healthy environment in which to live. Radioactive Radon gas can be in any structure that has its base on the ground. The only way to know if you are living with this killer is to test. Many people don't know they have high levels in their home until they are diagnosed with lung cancer and wonder how it happened. Radon related lung cancer is largely preventable if we are aware of its presence and its danger.
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