Erasing a Homes Silent Enemy
By Ann Needle
Selling the home of a departed parent is never easy — and tougher still when surprises arise. Margie Lynch found herself in that situation when she was selling her late mother Jean’s house on West Acton Road in Stow. Now, Lynch wants to help other homeowners avoid the same peril.
Lynch explained that, when Jean’s house was being sold, the buyers had it tested for radon, a radioactive gas released from the natural decay of uranium in rock, soil, and water. The amount was almost five times higher than the level for which the government recommends treatment to get rid of the gas, Lynch said.
Given that the EPA points to radon as causing about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year across the US, Lynch concluded, “I have come to believe that radon may have been a factor in my mother’s death from lung cancer.”
Built in 1999, Jean Lynch’s house was not tested for radon when constructed, given it was not something people were aware of at that time, Lynch explained. Though Jean lived there only 10 years, Lynch maintained that, as a home business owner, Jean spent most of her time in the house, giving her much more exposure to the radon than if she left for work each day. And, as a former smoker, Jean statistically was far more vulnerable to the high radon level, said Lynch.
“The contractors who installed the mitigation system said the radon she was exposed to was the equivalent of smoking just under 40 cigarettes a day,” noted Lynch.
The state’s Dept. of Public Health reports that about 25% of Massachusetts homes have excess radon levels that should be treated. However, as with radon itself, these levels can vary widely. About 29% of homes here in Middlesex County have excess radon, but that number rises to 36% for Worcester County. Homeowners and contractors are not legally required to test for radon when a house is sold or built, but the state reported that many real estate contracts call for the testing.
“The conditions are so variable from spot to spot, you cannot characterize an entire area” as being high-radon, Lynch remarked.
Stow Board of Health’s Jack Wallace agreed, noting, “Bands of it can happen in one yard and not another.” The closest Stow has come to pinpointing potentially high radon levels was a 2011 US Geological Survey, which remarked on high uranium levels in spots around State Road at the Hudson border, and a strip of land along the Bolton/Harvard border, he said.
Acting Against Radon
Thankfully, testing is simple, and the gas is entirely treatable. Because January is National Radon Action Month, Lynch said she is working with the Stow BoH and local legislators on educating homeowners on the importance of testing for radon every few years, and in how to treat it if found in higher levels.
Jack Wallace stressed that home testing kits are readily available, and he and Lynch are working to assure local hardware retailers have them in stock. The price for a kit can run as low as $20. Because radon levels could rise at any point in a home’s lifetime, a home should be tested every few years, and during major renovations. Naturally, any test results turning up high radon should be followed up by a professional.
The EPA-recommended clearance system for radon in many types of homes consists of a vent pipe system and fan, which pulls the radon from beneath the house and vents it to the outside. The state estimated the cost at anywhere from $800 to $2,500, depending on the type of house being treated. A far-less expensive system is the “passive” one installed when a house is built, something Lynch said she had done when building her own home a few years ago.
Water should also be tested. Wallace pointed out that new well regulations call for radon testing of new wells. However, he said the BoH can set up testing for existing wells, if requested.
Meanwhile, Margie Lynch said she has approached State Senator Jamie Eldridge on potentially working together on legislation to help tighten radon testing regulations. But, she said her biggest concern is making homeowners aware that the problem could exist, but is fixable.
“If you stop people in the street and talk about second-hand smoke, they know the concern,” Lynch commented. “Most people are just not knowledgeable about radon.”
For more information on how to test for and treat radon, go to www.epa.gov/radon