Radon Be Gone

The EPA has designated January as National Radon Awareness Month. “Test. Fix. Save a life.” is their tag line.

Those of us in the business of helping folks buy and sell homes, have been hearing about the health concerns emanating from radon seeping into homes for the past twenty years. In the first part of the 2000’s, health department officials encouraged buyers to test for radon at time of purchase. Radon was listed alongside a variety of other environmental concerns on the state of Minnesota mandatory seller’s disclosure.

Consumer response to radon did not match the government’s concern, and in 2014 the MN Radon Awareness Act went into effect. The variation in apprehension is best represented by the amount of space now dedicated to the topic in the seller’s disclosure. Lines 279-309 (2020 version) of the body of the disclosure speaks to radon alone–more lines than wells, septics, or any other topic. And two pages of information regarding the detection and harm of radon gas were tacked onto the end. Out of a twelve page disclosure virtually three pages, or one quarter of the document, is now devoted to radon (as opposed to foundations, or water penetration, or roofs).

The new disclosure established an industry standard which dictates the seller is obligated to mitigate a home which tests above the 4 cPi/L established by the EPA. It’s unclear if buyers request the install due to fear for their health, or because they don’t want to be the sucker-who-got-stuck-with-the-bill at a later date, when they go to sell.

Over the course of implementing tests and installations there have been some inconsistencies which have resulted in the need for a final arbitrator. For instance, a few years ago an inspector turned off the air exchange system that a seller had installed in his 1920’s home to enhance the heating and cooling functions. The EPA guidelines state that HVAC systems should be running as normal during the test. However, since this air exchanger was located in the attic (not in the basement) the inspector felt it was an extraneous appliance and turned it off.

The reading came in slightly over the benchmark of 4 cPi/L. As it had already been a contentious negotiation the seller refused any additional compensation. The buyer choose to use $1200 (compensation negotiated for a cracked clay chimney flu) on a radon mitigation system that would not be necessary had the exchanger been left running. They chose between fire safety and radon safety.

By early 2019 licensing of inspectors who perform radon testing was implemented to handle the inevitable variations in the use of the testing apparatus, including decisions regarding air exchangers. Since the MN Radon Awareness Act went into effect, a whole industry of inspectors (tests range from $180-$240) and mitigation installers (system installation ranging from $1000-$1800) as well as a bureaucracy to monitor and deal with complaints, has been established.

Background

The story the Minnesota Health Department has been stressing is that cancer is the leading cause of death in the state. But the leader is all cancers. Mortality rates for cancer vary within demographic groups, but generally, lung cancer makes up around 25% of cancer fatalities. Radon is called out as the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking. What they don’t say is that radon is lumped in with second hand smoke and accounts for just 12% of the cases of lung cancer.

MN Leading Causes of Death, 2017DeathsRate***State Rank*U.S. Rate**
1. Cancer9,896146.836th152.5
2. Heart Disease8,230119.150th165.0
3. Accidents2,78844.638th49.4
4.  Alzheimer’s disease2,47434.923rd31.0
5. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease2,46436.339th40.9
6. Stroke2,25032.640th37.6
7. Diabetes1,31219.336th (tie)21.5
8. Suicide78313.838th14.0
9. Flu/Pneumonia6979.948th14.3
10. Parkinson’s Disease67510.23rd8.4
Taken from the CDC’s website

Feel free to chime in if I’m doing my math wrong, but a quarter of all cancer cases is around 2500 (lung). Then twelve percent of that number is 2500 x .12 = 300. In other words, death due to radon isn’t even on this top ten chart. It accounts 38% of the souls that commit suicide.

From the keys on my calculator, I have death from radon registering in at no more than 5 per 100,000. Below this grouping of accidental deaths which make up 6% of all deaths (from MN Department of Health):

  • Falls (2.7%): 21.1 per 100,000 population
  • Accidental poisoning: (1.6%) 12.8 per 100,000 population
  • Motor vehicle (1.0%): 8.1 per 100,000 population

The average Minnesotan is four times more likely to die from a fall, twice as likely to be accidentally poisoned and slightly more likely to die in a car crash. The claim that more than 40% of homes in Minnesota are contaminating people’s lungs with radon gas and killing them is not jiving with consumers’ personal experiences.

Nationwide Agenda from the EPA

One has to assume that the MN Health Department is following a directive for radon procedures from the EPA’s national agenda. However the EPA offers not one article newer than 2003 on its website to validate research tying lung cancer to levels of radon in homes.

A paper from Korea, which looks at the topic using measures of radon in homes, was published in March of 2016 and is the most recent academic paper I could find. It too references almost exclusively research papers written prior to 2000. Ji Young Yoon et all (Department of Humanities and Social Medicine, Ajou University School of Medicine, Suwon, Korea) wrote “Indoor radon exposure and lung cancer: a review of ecological studies” which was published in The Annals of Occupation and Environmental Medicine. There had been no studies to date in their country. They found:

For Korea, we observed tremendous differences in indoor radon concentrations according to region and year of study, even within the same region. In correlation analysis, lung cancer incidence was not found to be higher in areas with high indoor radon concentrations in Korea.

Scanning the bio’s of the faculty at the College of Design at the UMN, not one cites an interest or expertise in radon. There seems to be a lack of interest in funding or pursuing this topic.

How can we be following guidance that doesn’t appear to have been updated or even reviewed in the last ten years?

That was then this is now

Furthermore there has been a dramatic decrease in lung cancer’s claim on lives.

The death rate from cancer in the US declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop ever recorded, according to annual statistics reporting from the American Cancer Society. The decline in deaths from lung cancer drove the record drop. Deaths fell from about 3% per year from 2008 – 2013 to 5% from 2013 – 2017 in men and from 2% to almost 4% in women. However, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death.

American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society estimates deaths from all lung cancer in MN in 2021 will come in at 1950. Twelve percent of this is 234.

Time has changed the circumstances but there has been no release, or at least, re-evaluation, of the protocol. It’s like everyone moved-on and no one told the bureaucrats. So they keep RADON at the top of their checklist of ‘to-do’s. Meanwhile a whole industry of inspectors, installers and licensing and compliance people are settling into a new market.

It’s that mindset that if, ‘We can save one life!’ Then it is all justified. Yet–if 2020 has taught any lessons it is, that even in lives, there are trade-offs.

Costs

In 2019 closed home sales in the 16 county greater metro area (Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors) came to just shy of 60,000 transactions. Take out new construction (10%) and townhomes (25%), and take out a few for opting out of radon testing assuming 36,000 test were performed. A radon test performed by a now licensed inspector averages $200. The (conservative) amount spent on radon testing in 2019 totals $7,200,000.

The MN Department of Health estimates that 40% of homes in MN will test over the benchmark set by the EPA as hazardous to one’s health, or 4 pCi/L. That would lead us to expect that 40% of the homes tested high and negotiated the installation of a radon mitigation system into their purchase. At an approximate average cost of $1200, that comes to a total expenditure for the state of MN to (36000 sales x .4 x $1200) $17,280,000.

Based on these numbers, Minnesotans spent nearly $24,480,000 on mitigating radon in 2019. The tag line from the ‘EPA Test. Fix. Save a life’ promotes an image of each install resulting in fewer deaths to cancer. But is that true?

The amount of money our metro community spent on radon is a flash in the pan compared to a state budget or even a (metro) county budget. But $24,480,000 for community associational groups, who are on the ground interfacing with those struggling with mental health and substance abuse, it is a pot of gold. And that’s where the money should be going. When a 70+ year old passes, it folds into the course of life. The impact of a father OD’ing, leaving young children behind, or the death if a youth, high on the latest street drug, will galvanize community effects that reverberate, even to the point of burning down a mile stretch of buildings.

Wouldn’t our communities be better off by spending that $24,480,000 on mental health to deter suicide? Wouldn’t this, for instance, help with community policing? I say yes.

Motivations and Spheres

The difficulty, of course, is that we can’t transfer the $24 mil from the radon pocket to the mental health pocket. Government used their ability to pressure a commercial endeavor to set up the radon industry. In fact, with the death rate for lung cancer dropping, it almost feels like the health officials are spurred onto be more aggressive. “We’re doing so well making widgets, lets make more!”

Unfortunately this is a business mindset, for work in the private sphere, one that seeks to expand and grow. The public good mindset is quite the opposite. Since the work in the public sphere is often performed to prevent something from happening–as in this case, to prevent lung cancer. Once that is accomplished, activities should cease, and resources reallocated to other demands of the public that now climb up to a higher priority.

In the meantime, the industry standard for radon testing, at time of a house purchase, has created paying jobs for inspectors and bureaucrats. Quite naturally, their motivation will be to support this new structure from a private point of view. It is not part of their employment to evaluate whether this the best use of societal funds. The inspectors and installers and continuing ed teachers and state licensures and public health workers will support the process because it pays the bills that support their families.

What happened to the feedback loop? Where in the system should there be a check to see if programs are on the right track? Feedback has been stifled because to criticize the noble cause of saving life has not tolerated.

What I am and what I’m not saying

I am not saying I have the expertise to validate or deny the tie of radon in homes to lung cancer.

I am pointing out that public health officials have struggled to get this issue to take traction in the public mind. I am saying that no research in the last fifteen years has validated our present path to safety (and one study has countered it). I am saying that an industry, in the private sphere, has sprung from these government actions, draining over $24,480,000/year from community funds for this issue. I am saying death rates from lung cancer have plummeted in the last ten years. I am saying there is no feedback loop to public officials to demand a review. I am saying it is no longer good enough to make one agenda and then push it through for a decade without any consideration that time alters all things.

For a generation there has been the activist approach in government. Select a cause; implement it nationwide; get the talking points out to all the communication outlets so it is heard in stereo; then never relent. I am saying that this is no longer good enough.

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