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The Nation's Housing

Problems With Radon Testing

August 02, 1992|KENNETH R. HARNEY

WASHINGTON — If you're one of the millions of American home buyers who've had a radon test conducted before closing the deal, consider this: Experts testified to a congressional subcommittee earlier this month that between 30% and 40% of all home real estate transaction radon tests are "tampered with," intentionally or accidentally.

The tampering renders them not only invalid for the unsuspecting home buyers' purposes, but dangerous to the buyers' long-term health as well.

Among the most common forms of intentional tampering, according to James W. Krueger of the American Assn. of Radon Scientists and Technologists, are:

--Efforts by sellers, real estate agents or others to "mask" the radon detection devices by covering them with plastic bags, wrappers and even spritzing their intake pores with a light coating of hair spray.

--Ventilating the test area by opening windows and doors or turning on fans, all designed to reduce measurable radon levels.

--Surreptitiously removing radon detection canisters from the home during much of the test period. One Pennsylvania real estate agent was caught returning a canister to a home being tested. The agent readily admitted what she was doing because she thought she was talking to the home inspection contractor hired by the buyers. In fact, the contractor's firm was providing both radon detection and home inspection services.

Another radon expert, Keith S. Fimian, chairman of Radonics, Inc., of McLean, Va., says it is "commonplace" for home sellers themselves to take the detection devices from their basement and put them "almost anywhere you can imagine--in the refrigerator, in a tree in the back yard. You'd be amazed."

Fimian's firm uses sophisticated electronic devices that continuously monitor the test environment and can document the precise time and nature of the tampering. Each unit includes motion sensors that record any person's arrival time and duration of stay in the test area. The unit also records its own movement to any different locations. The same machine simultaneously measures air temperature and barometric changes--commonplace when windows or doors are opened to cut the radon readings.

Fimian showed congressional subcommittee staff members graphic evidence documenting illegal radon tampering in home sales. In one case, a Dover, N.J., seller was shown to have moved the test device six times next to open windows and doors during the course of a two-day test inside a ground-floor room that was supposed to sealed shut.

The radon test was rejected, the house had to be retested, and was subsequently shown to have a radon level that exposed occupants to the equivalent of 400 chest X-rays a year.

The American Assn. of Radon Scientists and Technologists' estimates on tampering are based on extensive studies by member firms, involving thousands of individual tests, according to Krueger.

Radon, an odorless, naturally occurring radioactive gas, is found in all 50 states. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between 8 million and 10 million American homes register radon readings greater than the level considered injurious to health (4 picocuries per liter of air). A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates radon-caused lung cancer accounts for 16,000 deaths nationwide annually.

As part of home purchase transactions in many parts of the country, buyers now frequently require testing for radon--and correction of the problem if detected at unhealthy levels--prior to closing of the sale. This usually involves hiring a firm that installs one of several types of radon measurement devices, the most common of which is a charcoal canister.

Though accurate if the test room remains unventilated for several days, canisters are highly vulnerable to illegal tampering and accidental contamination.

"I was quite astonished that this is going on," said Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), chairman of the House energy subcommittee that conducted the hearing.

"Think of how many people have bought houses thinking that they and their children have no radon risk when they're actually living inside a serious health hazard."

Swift has introduced a bill (H.R. 3258) that would instruct the EPA to establish national certification and quality-assurance standards for radon-testing equipment and technicians. He also wants EPA and non-governmental groups to promote greater public awareness of the differences among radon testing devices, and the potential for tampering.

For example, so-called "continuous" electronic monitoring devices can be virtually tamper-proof, but the cost of each test is higher than for "passive" devices like charcoal canisters. Whereas a professional test using a passive device may run $50-$100, a more accurate electronic test may cost $200-$250.

Fimian's bottom-line advice for home buyers using canisters or other passive detection methods: Address the tampering issue bluntly with whomever is conducting the test. Ask what safeguards will be used. And consider a follow-up test to be sure the readings are constant.

What if you can document fraud in a radon test that leads to unsafe levels of exposure? Talk to a liability lawyer about suing the dishonest sellers, agents or other parties.

The legal liability issue for radon tampering, says Fimian, is "a time bomb out there waiting to go off."

Distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group .

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