Q: My partner and I recently rented a two-bedroom house in Minneapolis with an unfinished basement. As part of figuring out where to work from home during COVID, we looked into whether there was radon in the basement. Radon levels are measured in picocuries per liter or pCi/L, and we read that levels between 2 and 4 pCi/L were something to watch, and that above 4, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends taking action to remediate. The radon level in the basement of our rental home is alarmingly high at 9.5 pCi/L. We tested the main floor and found levels ranging from 4 to 6 pCi/L. We informed our landlord of the radon issue and asked about remediation. He replied that 4 to 6 pCi/L was within the average for Minneapolis homes. He also stated that the radon level in the basement isn't an issue because the place is rented as a two-bedroom, and the basement isn't supposed to be livable space. We still feel unsafe knowing that the floor we live on has such elevated levels of radon. How should we proceed?
A: Radon is a colorless and odorless gas that comes from the soil and can accumulate in the air that people breathe. You didn't say whether you did a short-term test or a long-term test, but the EPA recommends a second test to confirm the results if a short-term test shows results of 4 pCi/L or higher. You can do a follow-up test yourself, or you can contact the owner and ask for further testing. It is highly recommended by the EPA that if radon levels are at 4 pCi/L or higher, a radon mitigation system should be installed to reduce the radon level.
To test for radon yourself, you can pick up a radon test kit at a hardware store. Some laboratories provide kits through mail order. Make sure you get one from a qualified radon service professional that meets your state's requirements — the test kit will usually say so on the package. If you cannot find a radon test kit at a hardware store, you can order a low-cost kit from the National Radon Hotline by calling 1-800-SOS-RADON or 1-800-767-7236, or go to sosradon.org. The short-term test remains in your home for two to 90 days, depending on the device. The long-term test, however, remains in your home for more than 90 days; since radon levels tend to vary from day to day and at different seasons, a long-term test is a better indicator of year-round average radon level. For more information on radon go to www.health.state.mn.us/radon.
You have several options to remedy your radon problem. First, you should do a long-term test if your radon level was based on a short-term test. If the levels are still too high for you to feel comfortable in your rental home, you could request that your landlord install a radon reduction system. If he refuses, then you could request another rental home with lower radon levels or you could have a radon reduction system installed at your own expense. You could also request that you and your landlord share in the expense of the system, which benefits your landlord by keeping a good tenant happy now and makes his rental more desirable for future tenants. There is an incentive for your landlord to pay half the cost of remediation because now that you've discovered the radon level of the home, he has a duty to inform any buyer of this information if he ever decides to sell the home. You could also file a rent escrow action if your landlord refuses to cover the cost of the radon reduction. However, since the EPA and Minnesota Department of Health highly recommend that a landlord perform radon mitigation if the levels are from 4 to 6 pCi/L, but do not make it mandatory, you most likely won't get a favorable ruling. Another option would be to complain to the Minneapolis rental housing inspection department. The city code does not identify maximum radon levels in rental housing, but the inspection department may come test and decide to take action. Like the rent escrow action, this may not result in consequences for the landlord, but at least you will be on record with the results of the test and have a city agency advocating for the health and safety of your unit. A last option would be to request an early termination of your lease due to the high radon levels. Your lease may contain a buyout option, so check your lease language. If there isn't an early buyout clause, you can still request early termination of your lease. If you and your landlord arrive at an agreement regarding radon removal or early lease termination, make sure to get the agreement in writing and signed by both parties.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to email@example.com, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.