Jay Sandos lives in Johnson City with his wife and three children, all under 6 years old. It was in their basement playroom that he found dangerous levels of radon, a cancer-causing gas that experts say all homeowners should test for but many aren’t aware that they should.
“Everybody is concerned about their children,” Sandos said. “We all have all these things in our house to protect our family and I was a naysayer too until I got the test kit.”
“You will not know unless you test. There’s nothing you’re going to smell, there’s nothing you’re going to notice, there’s nothing you’re going to feel different,” said David Coffey, President of RADON1, a testing, and mitigation company based in East Tennessee.
Radon is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas that can be deadly when it concentrates indoors.
The American Lung Association calls it the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause overall, killing about 21 thousand annually. “It’s kind of like breathing second-hand smoke in many ways,” said Janice Nolen, the organization’s national assistant vice president for policy.
A new “State of Lung Cancer” report from the American Lung Association shows that Tennessee has the fourth highest rate of lung cancer in the country.
There’s evidence that radon plays a big role in these rates.
An informational map from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that some of the highest estimated radon levels in the country are right here in Northeast Tennessee.
“It’s important not to get too caught up in the maps. The maps can give people a false sense of security. We’ve had high radon levels, elevated radon levels, in every county in Tennessee,” said Jan Compton, radon program manager for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
“Any level over 2pCi/L needs attention and anything over 4 pCi/L definitely needs to be cleaned up,” Nolen said. “We’ve seen places that have a lot higher levels.”
The Sandos’s playroom, for example, tested at nearly 10 pCi/L.
Coffey said he’s found over 40 homes in Northeast Tennessee that have tested at 100 pCi/L.
There is good news.
“You can fix it, solve it and be done with it for about the price in your home or buying a new television set,” said Nolen.
President of the Northeast Tennessee Association of Realtors Aaron Taylor estimates that radon mitigation costs between $1,200 to $1,500.
Just testing your home is free, according to Compton. TDEC distributes free test kits to homeowners upon request.
Test kits are also available in most home improvement stores for under 20 dollars, according to Nolen.
The EPA recommends homeowners test every individual room in their basement and ground floor.
Compton said homeowners should test during colder months–when radon levels are highest–generally between November and January.
The agency also suggests retesting every two years.
Radon and real estate
Sandos said that he was not aware of the radon levels in his children’s playroom until 6 to 8 months after he moved into his Johnson City home. “Them being in that room, again underdeveloped lungs and everything, getting more than double the radon limit…without us knowing it, we just felt like that was a huge issue,” Sandos said.
Coffey believes that radon testing, by a certified professional, should be required as part of a real estate transaction.
Some states have already adopted strict laws surrounding radon and real estate. By September of 2015, 29 states required disclosure of radon hazards upon the sale of a house and 25 required licensing of radon inspectors and/or mitigators, according to the National Conference of State Legislature.
Lawmakers in Tennessee have yet to impose these regulations.
“You can’t sell me your house without a certified person telling me whether that house has termites or not but you can sell me that house if it has the second leading cause of lung cancer and there’s no regulation on that. That needs to change,” Coffey said.
Experts agree licensing is critical because if mitigation is done wrong, it can actually make radon levels worse. “Because it’s not regulated, two guys with a hammer and truck can go out and call themselves radon contractors,” Coffey said.
Taylor agrees the Tennessee legislature has lagged behind other states when it comes to these changes. “We do trail when we institute state laws but I can see it heading that way as we progress,” he said, adding these are changes NETAR may advocate for in Nashville this March.