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Lethal and lawless

Fellowship Story Showcase

Lethal and lawless

Picture of Sara Israelsen-Hartley

This story was produced as part of a larger project led by Sara Israelsen-Hartley, a participant in the 2019 National Fellowship.

Other stories in this series include:

Inside the newsroom: Ignore radon testing at your own peril

10 ways to protect your family from radon

The radioactive killer
 
Eleanor Divver, radon project manager for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, holds a favorite illustration of lungs.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News
DeseretNews
Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Editor’s note: This investigative report was produced with support from the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a small cubicle on the fourth floor of a beige government building, seven TRAX stops west of downtown, one woman is on a mission to save lungs.

She wants every Utahn to know what radon is, how dangerous it can be, and what they can do about it.

But the first and biggest hurdle is navigating her own lawless state.

Utah has no meaningful regulations for the carcinogenic gas that’s produced as uranium breaks down in the soil, then seeps into basements and ground-level floors, posing a health hazard to anyone breathing it.

Yet Eleanor Divver, Utah’s radon project coordinator, has seen states like Minnesota, Illinois and Maine pass laws that are making a difference. These states and others have created policies that impact residents at crucial junctures like new home construction, home sales and school classrooms — potentially saving lives.

But here in Utah, Divver can point out a string of gaps in the system — holes that keep families at risk.

Building out the enemy

Today, for usually less than $2,000, certified radon professionals can get most houses to a safer radon level by sealing cracks in the foundation and adding a ventilation system.

But it’s highly recommended and cheaper — around $400-$800 — to build homes in ways that prevent radon accumulation in the first place.

It requires builders to take a few extra steps during initial construction to “rough out” a ventilation system to help radon escape through the roof, not pool in the basement. Active systems contain a fan that runs 24 hours a day, while passive systems rely on natural air flow, but can be updated with a fan if needed.

SOURCE: EPA.gov

Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota are the only states with statewide requirements for radon-resistant new construction or RRNC.

A handful of states including New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon and Iowa require builders to build radon-resistant, but only in certain cities or counties, some designated by the EPA as potential high-risk zones for elevated indoor radon levels — of which Utah has seven. The rest of Utah is zone 2, or moderate potential risk.

Ross Ford, executive officer of the Utah Home Builders Association, said he knows some Utah builders install passive systems proactively, but couldn’t specify exactly who, as it’s not something the state or the association tracks, though he admitted it would be a good idea.

There are a few companies building RRNC:

  • Knight West Construction in Orem mitigates for radon because it’s part of “building green.”
  • Blackdog Builders, a custom home builder in Park City, says almost no buyers turn down their offer of a radon system installed as part of a new build or a major renovation project.
  • D.R. Horton, one of the top three homebuilders in the state based on number of homes built, began installing active mitigation systems in 2003 after learning about the health risks of radon exposure.
  • McArthur Homes has been installing passive systems for several years to proactively address a radon problem it was seeing in some of its finished homes.

Ivory Homes, the largest builder in the state, said its employees talk with homebuyers during the contract process about radon and what it is, but don’t automatically put in a passive system, leaving that to buyers’ choice.

While some builders may rough out the systems correctly, certified radon mitigator and radon educator John Seidel said he encounters 60 to 70 new Utah homes each year where the new-construction work was done incorrectly — requiring a costly overhaul before the radon system could be activated, or even an entirely new system.

Seidel would love Utah’s code changed back to what it was pre-2017 — when radon-resistant new construction systems had to be installed by certified radon professionals, not just general contractors — but short of that, he’d like a state inspection process for RRNC to mirror what’s done for electrical work or plumbing.

Michael Siler, president and CEO for the Utah Radon Coalition, wants to go even further, requiring a state inspection of any radon system, whether it’s in a new build or an existing home.

In Maine, anyone who works in the radon industry is required to be licensed by and submit their testing data to the state, as well as take continuing education courses, said Jon Dyer, Maine’s radon coordinator. A yearly fee for radon professionals, ranging from $75-$150, helps in a small way to fund the state’s radon program, and Dyer also follows up with any mitigation system complaints to protect homeowners.

The Utah PTA has been concerned about radon since 1998, when it drafted a resolution that resolved to inform parents about testing, encourage all districts to have buildings checked for radon and push for radon-resistant new construction in future school buildings.

Despite being updated in 2014, the resolution has remained fairly unused, overshadowed by other, louder education issues, said Cheryl Phipps, who drafted the resolution as a then-member of the health commission for the Utah state PTA.

Utah not only lacks funding and inertia for school testing, it lacks accountability.

There’s currently no database on districts’ testing status — other than the list the Deseret News compiled.

However, each year, the Utah Division of Risk Management administers an online self-inspection survey that all of the buildings insured by the state are expected to complete, said Brian Nelson, division director.

There are no radon-related questions on the survey, but after being asked by the Deseret News about radon awareness in the state, Nelson said he would be willing to “augment” the survey to add a question about whether a radon test has been conducted for a specific building or school.

“It will clearly take time to do that,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean we don’t get started, and I think this is a good start.”

[This article was originally published by DeseretNews.]