In Minnesota, radon is a diminishing risk

  • Article by: CHAD KOMPELIEN
  • Updated: July 18, 2013 - 6:34 PM

Despite a Star Tribune story, radon is a diminishing risk.

Perspective means everything when analyzing whether a public health policy is successful or not. So, when it comes to protecting Minnesotans from radon, is the glass half empty or half full?

In “Radon fix leaves some at risk” (July 14), the Star Tribune took one side of a story and presented a gloom-and-doom analysis. We’d like to tell you why the Minnesota Department of Health should be celebrating a successful public-policy solution.

First, some really important background information is needed. If radon levels could be tested before construction, or if they were high in every home, then the policy solutions to reducing the levels would be much easier. But radon levels are high in only 40 percent of Minnesota homes; the remaining 60 percent have acceptable radon levels right now. It’s impossible to predict which homes on which lots will have high radon levels. Neighbors across the street from each other, with identical floor plans, could have drastically different radon levels due to differences in geology. You need a reliable radon test result to figure out if your home has a radon problem.

Before the Minnesota State Building Code was changed in 2009, there were three types of houses in the state: 1) the 40 percent with high radon levels; 2) a small fraction whose owners had paid to have an active radon system installed to reduce radon levels, and 3) the remaining nearly 60 percent with naturally low radon levels.

Homeowners with high radon levels could find a radon mitigation professional to install an active radon system. Usually the problem was addressed by breaking up a part of the basement floor, running a pipe up through the roof and attaching a fan that would run continuously to suck radon gas out of the ground before it entered the home. This option is very successful in reducing the health threat — but expensive.

In 2009, Minnesota updated the code to require builders to install a passive radon system in every new home. The reason to celebrate is that this requirement has reduced unsafe radon levels for many homeowners. Only 20 percent of new homes — compared with 40 percent of existing homes — now have unsafe radon levels, as reported by the Health Department. The untold story is that 20 percent of homeowners in new homes don’t even need to know what radon is to receive a health benefit. This is because a passive system can work to drop radon below the unhealthy 4.0-picocuries-per-liter trigger point in many homes.

What’s more, since 2009, homeowners who still have unsafe levels have a low-cost solution, because their builder installed a passive radon system at the time of construction. Such homeowners only have to pay to add a radon fan and simple monitoring system.

So, if these active systems work so well, why not require them in all homes? Because almost 80 percent of new homes don’t need them. The majority don’t have high radon levels to begin with. In other homes, the passive system adequately reduces radon to a healthy level without a fan.

Both sets of homeowners can test their home’s radon level and remove “fix radon problem” from their home maintenance budget. There is no reason to install and run a fan when a home and its occupants don’t need an active radon system. In fact, using electricity for a radon fan that doesn’t provide a health benefit just causes more air pollution.

We believe that the Health Department study of 778 new homes is a reason to celebrate. Required passive systems are working in some homes; adding fans is working in others. The only downside is that a majority of Minnesotans who have bought new homes since 2009 have had to pay for a system they’ve never needed. Such is the compromise that the Legislature was willing to make when it required passive radon systems in all new homes. I agree with this policy; my company has been installing passive radon systems in homes we build since 1994.

To find out which category your home is in, follow the testing instructions on the Health Department’s radon website or contact the department to join its study. The public policy challenge that remains is to convince homeowners to test and, if needed, to install an active system to reduce health-threatening radon levels.

Chad Kompelien is president of the Builders Association of Minnesota.

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