Ask TreeHugger: What Do Radon Tests Mean?

Question: I am selling my house and in this process, my house was tested for radon using a mail-in kit. The buyers got the radon results back and they show that my house is just below the EPA recommended limit. The buyers want me to install equipment to reduce radon in my home. I don't think that this is is necessary, because my radon levels were just below the limit. If radon levels are below the EPA limit, doesn't that mean that my radon levels are fine?

Response: Radon is a naturally occurring gas that has been shown in research studies to cause lung cancer. People are exposed to radon primarily in their homes, as that is where people spend the majority of their time and that is where radon levels (in every day life) tend to be highest.

EPA recommends that people take steps to reduce radon levels in their home when levels are at or above 4 pCi/L. Since exposures to radon at even lower levels carry some risk of lung cancer, EPA recommends that people think about lowering their home's radon levels to even lower levels, or to 2 pCi/L. Lowering radon levels will be particularly important for areas where people spend time.To know how your home fits within the EPA guidelines, you need to know the average radon levels in your home over a long time period, as EPA developed these guidelines based on life time exposures to radon. Since your radon levels were measured using a mail-in kit, my guess is that your radon test was performed over a couple of days. Your test results near the 4 pCi/L action level indicate that it is possible for your home to have long-term average radon levels that need remediation (or lowering).

Since your test results were just under the action level, however, it is not clear that you need to remediate. Radon levels vary over time -- for example higher indoor radon levels are generally found in winter. As a result, it is possible that long-term radon concentrations are lower than measured. To check, you can retest your home for radon, making sure to place the radon kit in the same place as before (usually the basement or first floor is recommended). You could estimate the long-term average radon level as the average of the two test results. It's far from perfect, but retesting will give you more information to decide what to do. If the second test result is much greater than the 4 pCi/L action level, for example, I would assume my radon levels were too high. If the retesting results were much lower, then I would assume that my radon levels were within the recommended levels. If the test results are again close to 4 pCi/L, then the decision is harder.

Alternatively or in addition, you could just propose a radon mitigation or reduction solution that you have installed or provide funds to cover the costs for installation. This might be the easiest and quickest way to reach a suitable resolution with the prospective buyers of your home. Some radon reduction fixes are relatively easy and inexpensive to do, while others are more labor-intensive and costly. EPA estimates that radon remediation ranges between $800-$2500.

EPA has a good website about radon for home buyers and seller (http://www.epa.gov/radon/realestate.html). This site contains pretty user-friendly information about radon, its health risks, measurement, and remedies. On this website, EPA mentions their video "Breathing Easy: What Home Buyers and Sellers Should Know About Radon", which you may find helpful. To get a free copy of this video, you can call 1-800-438-4318 and ask for video number EPA 402-V-02-003.

Previous Ask Treehugger columns can be found here.

Helen Suh MacIntosh is a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and sudies how pollution behaves in the environment and how it affects people's health. Please keep in mind that her answers are just her interpretation of available information and should not be taken as the only viewpoint or solution to a problem. Use this column at your own risk. Having said this, please feel free to post any of your environmental health questions to
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