The frantic calls began as soon as Shirley Tocchini reported for work at a state Department of Health Services office in Berkeley.
By the hundreds, residents throughout the state had dropped their morning newspapers and run for the telephone.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the surgeon general's office had warned that radon--a naturally occurring radioactive gas that causes lung cancer--was far more widespread than previously thought.
With the announcement Sept. 12 came an unprecedented national health advisory on a par equal with the surgeon general's warning against smoking. Virtually every homeowner in the country as well as residents of basement, first- or second-floor apartments were urged to test their residences for radon. The EPA said radon was a major public health threat.
"The phones were just ringing constantly," said Tocchini, whose office deals with indoor pollution issues.
"The people were all, well, they sounded a little bit scared, a little anxious," she said. One woman who makes California her winter home called from the East Coast and wanted to know if it was safe to return to the state. Real estate agents sought advice on what to tell their clients. Other callers, not satisfied with responses from clerks, demanded to talk to their bosses.
"As long as I've been with this lab I've never had a week like that and I've been here 30 years," Tocchini said later.
The scene at Berkeley was repeated throughout the country as state government offices and private radon testing firms tried to cope with an unexpected surge of inquiries from tens of thousands of apprehensive homeowners.
Radon, a problem that for so long seemed confined to hot spots in the Northeast, Florida and uranium mining areas, had burst into the national consciousness.
The consequences could be far-reaching. Radon testing could become as routine in real estate transactions as a termite inspection. Builders may be required by building codes or market conditions to develop construction techniques that will limit radon's intrusion into new homes.
Legal issues, including questions of liability, can be expected as well as demands that radon testing firms and radon mitigation contractors meet minimal standards and be licensed, as they are in Pennsylvania.
Knowledge about the extent of radon contamination in California is only now beginning to surface. The state is surveying 360 homes throughout the state and plans to test an additional 1,000 to 1,200 residences in Southern California in the next several months.
A yearlong survey by The Times of 436 homes of its employees, found that radon does not appear to be an extensive problem in Southern California.
Only 1.2%, or about 50,000 of 4.2 million households in the region surveyed, are likely to exceed the EPA's recommended radon limit of 4 picocuries per liter of air, according to an analysis of The Times' findings by the state Department of Health Services.
Knowing which houses are among the 50,000 is the big question. But the emerging radon issue has also raised other questions among worried homeowners:
- Does radon threaten my health?
- How does it get into my home?
- Should I test for radon?
- What can be done to reduce radon levels if they are too high?
- What protection is there against unscrupulous testing companies and repair firms?
- Will my property values be affected?
- What are my legal responsibilities if and when I decide to sell my house?
- As a potential buyer of a home, how can I be sure that the seller isn't cheating in conducting a radon test?
RADON'S HEALTH THREAT
Radon, a decay product of uranium, is the largest single source of human exposure to ionizing radiation in the environment.
It is not the gas itself that poses the major health threat but atoms of heavy metals called alpha particles or radon daughters that are produced as the gas itself decays.
The radon daughters attach to smoke and dust particles that are inhaled and lodge in the lungs, where they emit cell-damaging radiation.
"You can't see it, but in each little tiny cubic centimeter--the space about the size of the end of my thumb--there are some 30,000 dust particles. The daughters attach to these particles (and) deposit in the lung fairly efficiently," said Naomi H. Harley, a radon authority at New York University Medical Center.
The EPA estimates that radon may be responsible for between 5,000 and 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year. The National Academy of Sciences has placed the mortality figure at 13,000 annually. Most scientists believe that smokers may account for most of the lung cancer deaths attributed to radon.
Exposure to 4 picocuries of radon for a year is comparable to the risk of lung cancer from 200 to 300 chest X-rays a year or the risk to a nonsmoker of smoking half a pack of cigarettes daily for a year, according to the EPA.
The risk estimates are based on exposure at those levels for 75% of the time over a 70-year lifetime.
HOW RADON ENTERS HOMES
Radon occurs naturally in the soil everywhere and is drawn into homes and apartments through cracks in concrete slabs or other openings. It is a product of the natural breakdown of uranium.
Because of slight differences in air pressure inside the house and outdoors, the radon can be drawn into the house, much like smoke is drawn up a fireplace chimney.
Radon can also be introduced into dwellings in which certain uranium-bearing building stones are used, and in water pumped from private wells. Municipal water systems are normally not affected. The soil, however, is by far the largest source of the radioactive gas, studies have shown.
TO TEST OR NOT TO TEST
The EPA has urged virtually every homeowner and resident of every apartment, condominium and townhouse living below the third floor to test. The recommendation is controversial. Many scientists, some state officials and the U.S. Department of Energy say there is not enough information on which to base such a call.
State Health Services Director Kenneth W. Kizer advises that, based on available data, including The Times' findings, there is no need for everyone in Southern California to test their homes.
"Anyone who is concerned should be free to have it done, but it would still be (too) early to tell (everyone) they have to do it," Kizer said. He called The Times' findings "especially good news." "It confirms (our thinking) that it is a very small proportion of homes in some areas where radon is higher."
But the study did find moderately higher radon concentrations in an area that extends through southeastern Ventura County. In order to better assess the extent of radon in a broader area that includes southeastern Ventura County, the state Department of Health Services plans a follow-up study. It will also include Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Paula, Simi Valley, the Santa Monica Mountains and also encompass Agoura, Malibu, Beverly Hills, Westwood, Brentwood and much of the San Fernando Valley.
In view of the upcoming survey in that area, Kizer indicated that homeowners may want to await the results before deciding to test their homes.
But whatever the state finds, the only way to learn the radon levels in a house is to test it. A neighbor's low reading is no guarantee that nearby houses will also have low levels.
Even adjacent identical houses can have widely varying radon levels. These differences can result from differences in ventilation rates, or cracks or other openings in the house that can become radon entry points. The differences can also result from the types of soil or geological features directly beneath the homes.
Initial screening tests for radon are simple and inexpensive. More than 1,000 companies throughout the country--most of them middlemen--have been found by the EPA to accurately measure radon. But, the EPA does not certify or otherwise license these firms. The accuracy of their measurements was tested under a voluntary program.
A list of the firms may be obtained by writing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Library Information Center, 215 Fremont St., San Francisco, Calif. 94105. The phone number is (415) 974-8076. Information on California is available from the state Department of Health Services' "radon hot line" at (415) 540-2134.
There are several ways of testing for radon. Each has advantages and drawbacks.
A charcoal canister detector need be placed in the house for only 48 hours before it is sent to the laboratory for analysis. Such a device would most likely be used during a real estate transaction, because the buyer and seller usually want to close escrow as quickly as possible.
But short-term tests can be inherently misleading. That is because radon levels change from hour to hour, day to day and season to season. Thus, a short-term test may either significantly understate or overstate the actual year-round radon average in the dwelling.
If the short-term test indicates elevated radon levels, a follow-up test should be carried out. Usually, an alpha-track detector is recommended; these detectors normally are placed in a home from one month to a year.
When health-threatening alpha particles emitted by radon gas strike a slide inside the detector, they leave a microscopic scratch. Later at the laboratory, the number of scratches are counted to determine radon levels. The Times used alpha track detectors marketed by the Terradex Corp. of Glenwood, Ill., for its survey. Such devices usually cost between $20 and $25. The price includes the laboratory analysis.
MITIGATING THE PROBLEM
Once radon is confirmed as a possible problem, a decision must be made on what to do about it. Generally, the higher the radon levels, the faster that steps should be taken to lower them.
The EPA recommends action within a "few years" if radon in a residence is between 4 and 20 picocuries per liter of air; sooner if the reading is on the high end of this range.
If radon levels are between 20 and 200 picocuries, action should be taken within several months. If radon is greater than 200 picocuries, the EPA advises that action be taken within several weeks.
The EPA strongly advises the services of a licensed professional contractor trained in reducing radon levels. The agency has conducted training sessions in various states to acquaint contractors with radon mitigation techniques.
But Californians may find themselves in a quandary. The California Department of Health Services and the Contractors' State Licensing Board said they know of no contractors in the state who are familiar with the problem.
California has no plans to follow Pennsylvania's example and establish minimum requirements for certifying radon testing companies and contractors who do business in the state.
"We don't have any regulatory authority or ruling that says you must or should or shall do this. Nothing is contemplated. The word from the Consumer Affairs Department is that the (Deukmejian) Administration's stand on radon gas is that it's not an issue in California. Since Dr. Kizer said nothing really needs to be done about it, we're told not to do anything about it," said Steve Kolb, a spokesman for the Contractors Licensing Board.
Expensive alterations should never be made on the basis of a quick screening test that lasts from 48 hours to a week. If radon levels are found to be high in the initial screening test, a second test should be conducted for a longer period.
In most cases alterations will cost between several hundred dollars to $2,000. Most mitigation work involves improving ventilation and sealing cracks and other radon entry points. (See illustration).
The EPA offers these publications: "A Citizen's Guide to Radon. What It is And What to Do About it." A far more technical EPA publication is "Radon Reduction Techniques for Detached Houses. Technical Guidance."
There is little doubt that the concern over radon is attractive to those who think they can make money overnight.
One of the most reputable firms in the nation, EG&E; Ortec of Oak Ridge, Tenn., advertised in the Wall Street Journal seeking people who wanted to get into the business of measuring radon levels. The ad asked, "Thinking of Getting Rich by Measuring Radon?" Prospective customers received a sales packet illustrated with a drawing of a radon monitoring device pictured with a money tree growing out of it.
There are also less reputable individuals. In North Dakota, one man was charging homeowners for a so-called radon test that involved lighting a candle and supposedly estimating radon based on the flame's color.
The EPA said it was informed of one so-called radon testing company that took empty mayonnaise jars to a home purportedly to scoop up radon-laden air. Another took in a Geiger counter, which cannot detect radon.
In Indiana, the state attorney general's office moved against one radon mitigation company after the firm allegedly inflated radon resting results to scare homeowners into contracting for unneeded services.
There may be a conflict of interest if the company that tests for radon also offers repair services. An unscrupulous firm might claim untrue high radon readings in order to persuade the homeowner that expensive repairs are needed.
"My biggest problem is not the person with a house with 100 picocuries per liter. My concern is the 4 or 5 picocuries house where people are spending money and want to sell their house or make repairs because they're scared stiff, and there's no need to be," said Thomas Gerusky of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Resources.
REAL ESTATE ISSUES
Radon is certain to enter into real estate transactions as more becomes known. Ralph W. Holmen, senior counsel for the National Assn. of Realtors, calls radon "a growing cause of consumer concern."
More than half of the real estate agents who responded to a survey by the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh said they had lost at least one sale because of radon.
Holmen said there is no doubt that if the real estate agent suspects radon may be a problem that the buyer must be informed. "The tougher question, and the one that's very difficult to answer, is what the real estate agent is supposed to do to ascertain whether a property does or does not have radon. That's solely an issue of state law and, to a certain extent, of ethics. Our code of ethics would suggest that where there's some reason to believe that a property may have a radon problem the agent has at least an obligation to make the buyer aware that's a potential problem," Holmen said.
He said New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado have developed disclosure forms or contract clauses covering radon.
"We do generally encourage sellers to consider testing their property when they're in an area where radon may be a problem," he said.
Under California law, a seller must disclose to the buyer all facts that materially affect the value or desirability of the property being sold. Under recent court rulings, the seller and his broker already have a duty to investigate and disclose reasonably discoverable defects. Depending upon the results of a radon test, the seller may have a legal duty to disclose the radon levels in the home to potential buyers, which could affect the value of the property.
For this reason, many homeowners are reluctant to test their propertys for radon. They would rather run the risk of elevated levels of radon in their homes--a risk that cannot be seen, smelled or felt--than jeopardize their investment.
But, as radon becomes a household word, it may not be possible to avoid such tests. Buyers and their agents may insist upon them in areas where radon concentrations are known to be high. Florida enacted a law in 1986 requiring that some new homes built in radon hot spots meet certain building code requirements to minimize radon levels. In Montana, the Department of Housing and Urban Development would not finance homes in certain areas until tests showed that radon was not a problem.
If tests are conducted, both the buyer, seller and their agents should be aware of possible pitfalls.
A testing company, real estate agent or homeowner could cheat simply by placing the detector outdoors, on a window ledge, or elsewhere where radon levels are low during the test period. The laboratory, in reporting low radon readings, would have no way of knowing that the device was placed outdoors.
There can be legal repercussions, however. A buyer can always test for radon after moving into the new residence. If high radon levels are discovered, the new owner might sue to recover the actual or perceived injury to the health of the home's occupants and compensation for loss of property value.
One solution may be to set up an escrow account into which the seller deposits an agreed-upon sum to be used by the new buyer to pay for any work needed to reduce radon levels. The buyer would be responsible for testing the house after moving in. The tests could run from three to 12 months. If radon levels were found not to be a problem, the money in the escrow account would be returned to the seller.
Holmen said that for those who plan to sell their homes, the testing should be carried out in advance in order to avoid delays during escrow. "The thing to do is to test immediately so you overcome this time problem . . . instead of waiting for a purchaser with an offer in hand," he advised.
Holmen noted that the EPA's recommending that everyone test for radon will help a great deal. "This means that people will test at a time when they're not sellers. It makes the testing more credible."
COMMON RADON ENTRY ROUTES & HOW TO REDUCE RADON LEVELS The EPA says most radon remedies require the skilled services of a professional contractor. However, it offers the following steps that can be taken to help you in evaluating proposals from contractors. These steps are shown in house that illustrates plaster board and stucco constructionover a slab, at left, and brick over a crawl space, at right. COMMON RADON ENTRY ROUTES A. Floor-to-wall joints. B. Building materials such as some building stone. C. Cracks in concrete slab floors. D. Pores and cracks in concrete blocks. E. Mortar joints. F. Open tops of block foundation walls. G. Exposed soil, as in the crawl space beneath a house. H. Loose-fitting pipes. I. Spaces behind brick veneers atop hollow block foundations. J. Private well water (usually not municipal systems). HOW TO REDUCE RADON LEVELS -Seal loose-fitting pipes and other openings leading from the soil into the house. -Seal cracks in concrete slab floors. -Make sure crawl space vents are open and clear. -Ventilate your home in ways that avoid depressurization.*-If you have a basement, painting the floors and walls can help seal them. -Completely cover and seal exposed earth in the basement or crawl space. -For houses with a concrete slab floor, install a sub-slab piping system to suck radon out of the soil before it reaches the slab. -Test again after alterations are made to confirm that radon has been reduced. *When air pressure inside the house is lower than surrounding air, radon gas is sucked in through whatever routes may be open. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency