Photo from ground, pointed up at skyscraper

Danger! Why Assumptions about Radon Have Toxic Consequences to Property Owners

Sep. 16 2019 - Justin Arias

Naturally occurring. Odorless. Colorless. Tasteless. And responsible for an EPA-estimated 21,000 deaths per year. Radon – a cancer-causing gas that creeps into building foundations, cracks in walls, and even water supplies unnoticed – can have deadly consequences to tenants and occupants and to the companies that manage and own the properties. Radon is everywhere, and it’s a real and growing problem.

Why are so few owners and lenders concerned? 

QUESTIONABLE ASSUMPTION #1:  ‘It’s Never Going to Affect Me’ Syndrome

You can’t hide from radon, or from the awareness movement starting to take shape.  Although radon has always existed, we as a society are just now starting to realize its threat and take action to prevent it.  And for good reason.  According to the EPA, 12% of lung cancers annually – that’s 21,000 deaths per year in the U.S. – are attributed to radon. 
Awareness is growing: 

  • The EPA has declared the month of January as National Radon Awareness Action Month.
  • Lawsuits are starting to be filed by tenants against their landlords (more on that below).
  • Ohio and Illinois have adopted some fairly stringent radon testing requirements in multifamily and commercial buildings.
    • Ohio uses the AARST MAMF protocol when testing for radon in multifamily or commercial properties.
    • Illinois has required 100% of ground floor testing in multifamily and commercial properties for some time. This testing requirement is similar to the AARST protocol but does not require the testing of 10% of upper floor units.
    • In both states, technicians are required to follow the state mandated protocol or run the risk of loss of license or even fines/penalties.
  • Iowa, New Jersey, and Minnesota are starting to discuss the adoption of testing requirements similar to Ohio and Illinois.
  • Freddie Mac and HUD have both adopted Radon into their Scopes of Work in recent years, and many lenders are starting to require testing for hotels in which guests stay for extended periods of time.

It is expected that with growing public awareness and concern, more states will issue regulations, and scopes of work will increasingly be revised to include radon testing.
QUESTIONABLE ASSUMPTION #2:  There are NO Regulations that I Have to Comply With
In recent years, various states and organizations have pioneered radon awareness and testing.  In 2013, the EPA released the Federal Radon Action Plan, a document that “aimed to reach 860,000 homes, schools and daycare facilities in 2013.”  As of January 1, 2014, daycare facilities in Illinois are required to test for radon every three years.  Ohio has also published radon sampling requirements.  An increasing number of states are requiring the installation of radon mitigation systems for new residential construction. 
Lenders have begun to follow suit.  Freddie Mac and HUD have heavily adopted radon into their Scopes of Work for Phase I Environmental Site Assessments.  HUD is currently in the process of adding radon sampling and mitigation requirements to their single-family programs, with potential additions to their senior housing programs in the future.  HUD’s acceptance of radon as a genuine concern has also led to the development of a true National Radon Proficiency Program, the first iteration of which will be issued in January of 2015.
QUESTIONABLE ASSUMPTION #3:  The Liability is Less Than the Cost to Address the Issue
With so much involved in managing the day-to-day operations and maintenance of a property, it may be tempting to try saving cost and time by pushing radon aside.  You should take caution!  When you consider the potential damage to your company image from bad press, bad deals, or lawsuits, the cost of ignoring radon can be much greater than the cost of addressing it upfront.    

  1. Your tenants get sick

It’s simply good moral practice to ensure the safety of your building’s occupants.  You expect the buildings you occupy to have safety features such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, or carbon monoxide detectors.  Why should radon be any different?  True, radon does not pose the same immediate risk of these three examples, but over time, high levels of it can have severe consequences.
So how much radon is harmful?
The risk of becoming sick from radon exposure is based on how much radon is in the building, how much time is spent in the building, and whether or not there is smoking in or around the building.  If the radon level in your property is 4 pCi/L or above, the property is putting your occupants in great danger.  According to the EPA, an acceptably safe amount of radon in a property is between 0 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L.

  1. Your tenants report you

Don’t let this happen to your company image – or to your bottom line.  Right now in New Jersey, a 384-unit condominium owner is in its sixth year of a class-action lawsuit because of radon allegations.  The suit began when two residents alleged that the property owner and the installers of radon mitigation systems did so incorrectly, and in some cases, that the test results were even fabricated.  If the plaintiffs are successful, the settlement will cover every tenant in the complex to the tune of $325,000.

  1. Your deal gets delayed

As previously mentioned, Freddie Mac and HUD are already big proponents of radon testing.  This trend is very likely to continue with additional pressure from the residential sector.  If your lender or buyer happens to require radon testing in their environmental due diligence scope and you fail to satisfy that requirement, you will likely encounter delays in closing your deal. 
SOUND ASSUMPTION: I Should Take Action Against Radon Now

  1. Get your property tested every few years

Radon measurement professionals – like us -- can perform radon tests using a variety of EPA-approved techniques.  Typically, testing will occur from the third level of the property to the ground level.

If radon is identified in the first three levels, then testing will be conducted on the higher levels to see how far the radon has infiltrated the property. 
Since the shifting of the earth’s crust can open new pathways for radon to infiltrate a property, the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST) recommends getting a test done every two years if a radon mitigation system has already been installed, and every five years if the previous testing has resulted in low levels of radon. 

  1. Install a radon mitigation system

Radon gas can be prevented with radon mitigation systems.  These systems are like a vacuum for the soil under your property.  They are installed by certified radon remediation professionals and are permanent components of the building.  These systems are comprised of suction pipes that enter the soil under the concrete floor or a crawl space vapor barrier, a radon fan, and an exhaust pipe to vent the radon gas out into the atmosphere above the property.  They run continuously to grab the radon from the soil before it can enter the property.  Radon mitigation systems are more efficient when all cracks and openings in the property’s foundation are sealed.

We work closely with a nationwide network of radon technicians that handle the bulk of the radon testing we complete.  We have years of experience successfully working within lender scopes like Freddie Mac, and we were at the forefront of the new HUD radon requirements issued under HUD-ML-2013-07.

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