January, 2020
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

ASHI Members Address Radon Issues


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of ASHI. The information contained in the article is general and readers should always independently verify for accuracy, completeness and reliability.

Radon testing will become more challenging as state and federal governments continue to introduce radon-specific disclosure requirements. The awareness of these issues often arises during real estate transactions, which makes it an issue of special interest to home inspectors. In addition, if federal housing finance entities adopt radon testing and mitigation requirements for single-family housing, similar to HUD multi-family requirements, demand for testing services could expand dramatically. 

Engineering Extension at Kansas State University (“K-State”), as provider of national public radon technical assistance for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 2009, has processed more than 100,000 calls and inquiries about radon. The range of questions is interesting to say the least, and led us to design our website (www.sosradon.org) to address the most frequent questions. 

We often find ourselves in a conversation among citizens, home inspectors and real estate agents; citizens, mitigators and real estate agents; or buyers or sellers and their real estate agents. Our goal is to provide an unbiased and practical source of information for everyone on all sides of the conversation, share EPA and state guidance, provide access to certified measurement and mitigation professionals, and assist callers in understanding and reducing their risk of radon exposure.  

As one of the original 1980s EPA regional radon training centers, we have trained thousands of home inspectors and mitigators; these folks are achieving real radon risk reduction and saving lives by testing, fixing and building radon-resistant new structures. Helping radon professionals with real-world testing quandaries and mitigation mysteries is also a frequent task of our radon technical assistance, and we share and receive lessons learned from these interactions with both the professional community and the public. 

While some home inspectors and real estate agents think that radon testing is required (which is not a bad thing), it really is only required in Montgomery County, Maryland, in rental housing in Maine, and in some multi-family projects financed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In many locations, especially those states and area with higher radon potential, radon testing is standard procedure, even though it is not required. Unfortunately, in many other locations, agents may say, “Radon is not a problem in our area,” which is, of course, not true, and leads to a reduction in testing and lack of recognition of the risk posed by long-term exposure to elevated radon levels. The Surgeon General has repeatedly recommended that all homes be tested for radon.

Regardless of the views of the participants involved in real estate transactions, it is critical that home inspectors conduct appropriate and accurate radon measurements so that clients have a sound basis for the mitigation decision negotiation. That means following quality assurance steps and conducting quality control measurements to assure all clients that results are valid and representative of the potential for elevated radon in the home being tested. 

It would be wonderful if protocols and standards provided answers to all the test placement challenges encountered in the field, but that is not possible in the real world of residential testing. Professional judgment will always be at play; documentation of placement decisions and interpretation of results are part-and-parcel of every measurement. 

Test results under real estate testing options (especially when the result is at or exceeds 4.0 picoCuries per liter of air [pCi/L]) often are challenged as non-representative for any number of reasons. It is crucial that the testing professional evaluate the results and, assuming he or she determines the results to be valid and substantiated, then stand behind the results without casting doubt on the measurement. Conducting a second measurement simply because a participant in the transaction takes some issue with the result should be avoided as much as possible if the home inspector has no reason to doubt the initial measurement. While radon professionals understand there is uncertainty in every measurement, the standards outline what we do to minimize that for every measurement. Following device operation and placement instructions, ensuring annual CRM calibrations, and conducting duplicates and cross-checks are fundamental to assuring quality measurements. In addition, taking steps to minimize violations of closed-house conditions during short-term measurements is fundamental. 

What happens to the house during the test has far more influence on the results than the specific device used to conduct the test. This is the reason why short-term tests must last for a minimum of 48 hours. If you need results quickly, a short-term test of less than four days may be used to decide whether to fix the home if closed-house conditions have been in place 12 hours prior to starting the 48-hour test. Another option is to conduct a minimum four-day test after closed-house conditions are in place. Radon professionals do all they can to provide reliable results, but are also aware that the natural variability of radon may lead to a result of 3.9 at the time of this sale, and a result of 4.1 when the same house is sold in another year.

State and industry members working together to increase radon awareness led to the recent passage of specific radon disclosure requirements in Illinois and Minnesota. These requirements have resulted in dramatic increases in testing and mitigation activity and commensurate risk reduction. While the holy grail of radon legislation is required testing in every home sale, it is not likely to be achieved anywhere soon. Disclosure laws are a logical step, especially for those states with more significant radon potential.

While state radon programs and the EPA appropriately seek increased awareness of radon, as evidenced by congressional guidance emphasizing outreach to physicians and schools, the greatest opportunity for home inspectors may be working with the radon industry on efforts to influence radon policies being considered by HUD and other federal housing finance agencies. Were those agencies to require radon tests in all of their associated single-family housing transactions, the demand for testing and mitigation services could outstrip industry capacity in the near-term. People living in areas of the United States where radon potential is low but the frequency of real estate transactions is high would experience the most significant change in radon testing and the need for testing and mitigation services. 

When testing results lead to mitigation, properly installed systems have proven capable of reducing any level of radon to below 4 pCi/L and, in most cases, below 2 pCi/L and even 1 pCi/L. The key phrase is properly installed, which means according to the mitigation standard adopted in a certifying state in which the house is located or the standard that the National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) or the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB) certified mitigator has agreed to follow. 

In states without regulations (and in states with regulations, for that matter), systems may be installed by those who are untrained, ignorant or willing to do a least cost system that may have negative effects in terms of radon levels, indoor air quality and energy use. A review of states with regulations will reveal numerous mitigation system inspection checklists, and it is important to access the state checklist as a reference when working in that jurisdiction.

ASHI recently completed its own comprehensive mitigation system inspection checklist that includes 69 items (https://ashiwebstorage.blob.core.windows.net/files/membersonly/docs/ashi_radon_checklist_2018.pdf). This checklist is an excellent resource for home inspectors to assess existing systems for safety and compliance with the minimum of national standards should your state not offer its own checklist. During our 4-hour and 8-hour continuing education courses on inspecting the mitigation system, instructors use this and several other inspection checklists to review case studies and installed systems, as well as “hall of fame” and “hall of shame” examples from across the country. 

As ASHI members encounter field testing and mitigation challenges, representatives at the National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University are available to respond to you and your clients to help resolve situations based on practical knowledge and experience with these issues. Our website is www.sosradon.org, and the national radon helpline number is 1-800-557-2366. We can also be reached at radon@ksu.edu for assistance. Please don’t hesitate to call on us if we can be of service.

Bruce Snead is Director of Engineering Extension at Kansas State University (“K-State”) and has been a state extension specialist in residential energy, radon and indoor air quality since 1982. He has conducted radon industry training since 1989 and currently directs the Midwest Universities Radon Consortium at KSU, with the potential to serve 33 states: www.radoncourses.com. Bruce has also led K-State’s role in the Kansas Radon Program for 28 years and has conducted the National Radon Program Services activities for the EPA since 2009, providing technical assistance through nationwide toll-free phone lines and online at www.sosradon.org. The K-State Radon Chamber recently opened under Bruce’s direction and provides secondary radon chamber services to the US radon industry as AARST-NRPP Certified Chamber Number SC-1006: www.ksuradonchamber.org. Contact Bruce at Engineering Extension at Kansas State University, 2323 Anderson Ave. Suite 300, Manhattan, KS 66502, bsnead@ksu.edu.