Focus, Government, and Health Care

Local real estate agents are familiar with radon testing

January 30, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Radon
Adam London, administrative health officer for the Kent County Health Department, and Sara Simmonds, the department’s supervising sanitarian, discuss the radon testing kits offered by the county. Courtesy Kent County Health Department

Public health officials in Lansing and in Kent County — as well as Gov. Rick Snyder — take the threat of radon gas very seriously and urge people to test for its presence in their homes.

Snyder issued a proclamation making January “Radon Action Month,” and the Kent County Health Department issued a news release Jan. 2 noting it sells self-testing kits for $5 for homeowners who want to test for radon.

Snyder’s proclamation states, “Exposure to elevated levels of radon is an environmental health threat; this exposure in homes is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers in the United States.”

He noted the EPA recommends homes with radon levels at or above 4.0 picocuries per liter of air should be “mitigated.” That is, the radon gas should be vented to the outside to reduce the occupants’ lung cancer risk.

The governor’s proclamation also states that “elevated radon levels can be found in every Michigan county; in some Michigan counties, more than 50 percent of homes tested had elevated radon levels, and 27 percent of all radon tests statewide returned results at or above 4.0 picocuries.”

Radon is a tasteless, odorless, colorless radioactive gas that occurs as a result of the natural breakdown of uranium in soil and rock. According to the Kent County Health Department, it seeps into buildings through cracks or openings in the foundation of floors and walls, around sump openings or spaces around plumbing. It occurs in both new and old homes, in houses built over a basement, over a crawlspace or on a concrete slab.

“While nationally the estimated number of homes that have elevated levels of radon is 1 in 15, here in Michigan, the risk is almost double the national average,” said Adam London, administrative health officer for the Kent County Health Department. “Kent County is considered to have an elevated, moderate potential for radon, according to the EPA. Testing is quick, simple and can bring peace of mind.”

According to the EPA, the predicted average indoor radon test result in Kent County is between 2 and 4 picocuries per liter of air. In adjacent counties to the west and northwest, it is less than 2 picocuries per liter.

Terry Westbrook is a veteran real estate agent in the Grand Rapids area, owner of Westbrook Realty and the 2013 president of the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors. He said radon gas “didn’t seem like it was a big thing” as recently as five years ago, but that is changing.

He said since then, corporate employees transferred to Grand Rapids from other U.S. cities and shopping for a home began asking if radon tests had been done.

“That really kind of stimulated it,” said Westbrook. Now, he added, if you are trying to sell your home, a potential buyer is possibly going to ask about a radon test, “so you had better know what you’ve got” before you try to sell the home.

Les Smith of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is the indoor radon specialist for the state of Michigan. He would agree with Westbrook, noting the real estate industry has been aware of it for some time. Radon gas, is said, “is starting to get more attention as homeowners’ knowledge of radon is increasing.”

“Most of the testing is done during the real estate transactions,” he added.

Smith, who gets up to 1,700 calls a year on the DEQ State Radon Hotline, was at the DEQ Indoor Radon Program booth at the Grand Rapids Remodeling & New Homes Show at DeVos Place in early January.

The presence of radon gas can vary between houses next door to each other and between adjacent neighborhoods, said Smith.

He said there are about 30 radon mitigation contractors working in Michigan. These companies install air movement systems that vent the air containing radon gas to the outdoors, where it rapidly and harmlessly dissipates in air currents. Smith said the cost of a radon mitigation system can range from $700 to $1,500 for a single-family home, but “commercial structures are higher than that.”

Joe Berlin, the president of BLDI Environmental Engineers at 150 Fountain St. NE in Grand Rapids, said his company deals with radon almost exclusively in residential structures from single-family homes to apartments and condos.

“For some developers, assessment and mitigation of radon or other indoor air-quality issues is a focus in their pre-purchase due diligence. These developments can also include general commercial and hotels,” said Berlin.

“The key difference for our work is that, for larger developments, condos and apartments, the developer and lender generally take a more rigorous assessment approach. If governmental lending is involved (e.g. MSHDA, HUD) there are very rigorous assessment and testing protocols to utilize. The common home radon kit, although helpful, generally does not meet the quality control requirements for these government programs,” said Berlin in an email to the Business Journal.

Berlin said the cost of installing a radon mitigation system (post-construction) in a single family home generally runs from $2,000 to $4,000.

“The impact on purchase negotiations where a government lender is requiring further testing can certainly complicate the transaction closing. We need to remember that this sampling is a point in time and, at least in some cases, can vary between testing events,” said Berlin.

Olga Hallstedt of Results Commercial Real Estate Services in Grand Rapids said she has never encountered radon gas as an issue in her commercial real estate deals, but she does not handle residential properties. She said other environmental issues always come up in commercial real estate transactions — issues relating to the soil where waste or industrial chemicals have gotten into the ground.

The Kent County Health Department said its radon test kits involve hanging a small filter in the basement or crawl space for several days. It is then mailed in a prepaid envelope for analysis, with the results returned within a few weeks.

For more information about the kits, contact the Kent County Health Department at (616) 632-6900.

If the test does indicate a potential radon problem, information is available from the EPA, including tips for do-it-yourself mitigation systems. See epa.gov

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