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Group Calls for Checks on Radon Testing Firms : Consumer Organization Cites Error Rate of 3 Out of 7 Companies in Study

Times Staff Writer

A consumer action group organized by Ralph Nader called Wednesday for more stringent government testing of home radon testing companies after its own independent study found that three of seven firms failed to accurately measure concentrations of the radioactive gas.

The group, Public Citizen, said some of the false readings were too high. Others were too low. In some cases, the unwary homeowner could wind up making unnecessary and expensive repairs to lower non-existent radon levels or be lulled into a false sense of security, the group said.

“Those tests show that an alarming number of radon test kits currently on the market may not be doing the job,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told a Washington press conference.

The seven firms account for about 70% of all home radon kits sold in the United States. Three of the seven companies that the group said had failed its tests immediately challenged the findings and said the Public Citizen study was unscientific and unprofessional.

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Radon is the nation’s second-leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking. The National Academy of Sciences has estimated that radon accounts for 13,000 deaths a year. Because radon is believed to compound the harmful effects of smoking, the academy has said that most of those deaths would be among smokers.

The findings from their yearlong but limited study, Claybrook said, point up the need for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose more stringent tests before recommending testing companies to the public. She noted that all seven companies had previously passed EPA tests.

About 850 companies have been placed on the EPA’s “approved list” after the EPA testing. But the agency does not actually certify the firms and has no plans to seek congressional authorization to do so.

The EPA admitted Wednesday that its testing procedures were flawed and announced that a limited number of more rigorous tests, such as those undertaken by Public Citizen, will begin next spring at the urging of the EPA’s scientific advisory panel.

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In the meantime, the EPA said consumers should not be overly concerned by Public Citizen’s results. EPA spokesman Chris Rice said that in cases in which high radon readings are found, the federal agency recommends longer-range and more accurate testing before homeowners take steps to reduce radon levels.

Ned Doyle, a spokesman for Air Chek, an Arden, N.C., company that failed one of Public Citizen’s two testing rounds, vigorously disputed the findings. “I have never seen a program run so poorly, so unscientifically, supposedly in the public interest. This is staggering,” he said.

Spokesmen for the other two companies that failed at least one of Public Citizen’s two tests--Douglas Martin & Associates of Emmaus, Pa., and Barringer Laboratories Inc. of Golden, Colo.--voiced similar views. Both said their firms had not only been repeatedly approved by the EPA, but that the accuracy of their test kits had been verified by customers who conducted their own quality assurance tests.

The four companies in the study winning Public Citizen’s endorsement were Radon Testing Corp. of America of Elmsford, N.Y.; Teledyne Isotopes of Westwood, N.J.; Key Technology of Jonestown, Pa., and the Radon Project of Pittsburgh, Pa.

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Two Separate Tests

Public Citizen’s consumer arm, known as Buyers Up, conducted the tests. A total of seven to eight radon testing kits from seven companies were exposed in two separate tests to what the group said was a predetermined amount of radon and then sent back to the companies for analysis.

In one of two separate testing rounds, Public Citizen said Air Chek overestimated radon levels by 68%. Barringer Laboratories reportedly underestimated radon by 50%. Douglas Martin barely failed, with an average error of 26.8%. The consumer group said that any firm whose reading varied from actual concentrations by more than 25% was failed.

All the radon test kits tested were charcoal canister types, which are useful in making short-term measurements usually lasting 24 hours to a few days.

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But, even when the charcoal canister readings are accurate, they have limited value beyond informing the homeowner that more extensive testing may be needed. That is because levels of radon gas, which seeps up from the soil and is sucked into homes through cracks and other openings, vary from day to day and season to season.

The Times last year placed a different kind of radon detector in 436 Southern California homes for 12 months and found that about 50,000 homes, or 1.2% of Southern California households, exceeded radon limits of 4 picocuries per liter of air recommended by the EPA. The detector used by The Times is known as an alpha-track detector and is marketed by Terradex Corp. Terradex detectors were not among those tested by Public Citizen. But the consumer group gave Terradex high ratings for consumer service.


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