The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High radon levels may be a downside to having a tight, energy-efficient house

(Mary Ann Chastain/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Chodorov,  a real estate agent with Long & Foster, writes an occasional column about local market trends and housing issues.

Robert Eisen purchased his home 13 years ago in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring. At the time, the radon level was well below the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended level of 4 picocuries per liter, or 4 pCi/L.

When a neighbor found considerably higher levels of radon during the recent sale of his home, Eisen decided to test his home again. He was shocked to discover that his radon levels had skyrocketed.

Last December, Eisen distributed a notice on the neighborhood listserv letting residents know about the high radon levels and encouraging them to get their homes tested. Eisen speculated that the radon levels might be linked to the earthquake in 2010. “The reason for the jump in radon levels is probably due to the earthquake…..” he said in his e-mail.

“I was reluctant at first to share the news because people can be irrational,” Eisen said in an interview. “I was concerned that it would reduce the value of my home. I was worried that our friends might be concerned about having sent their kids into our basement. In the end, I sent the e-mail because I felt an obligation to let others know.”

Soon afterward, Ben Bazian, another Kemp Mill homeowner, sent a similar e-mail to his neighbors.

“Though our house was tested when we purchased it, I decided to test again after hearing about a neighbor finding radon in his home,” Bazian said. “This area appears to have a high level of radon and I highly recommend that you have your house tested,” Bazian warned in his e-mail. “Whether you believe that radon is a health issue or not, you will not be able to sell your house if the radon levels are above acceptable levels so you may as well deal with it.”

Eisen said he heard that a local radon inspector received 20 calls as a result of his e-mail, but does not know the results of those tests. “I wonder if people are quiet about it because they consider it a badge of shame. Maybe they are concerned their friends or family won’t come to their house anymore.”

Bill Long, director of the Center for Radon and Air Toxics in the Office of Air and Radiation at the U.S. EPA, said “radon is nothing to be ashamed about” and is easy to remediate.

Long, however, warned that radon is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking. According to the EPA’s Web site, radon causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States. Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer deaths among non-smokers, according to EPA estimates. More people die each year of cancer related to radon than from drunk driving, drowning or home fires.

Long also said that most of the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. area is in Zone 1, which has the highest risk for radon among the three zones. The EPA’s map of radon zones assigns each of the 3,141 counties in the United States to one of three zones based upon radon potential.

The zone map, Long said, is not intended to be used to determine if a home should be tested for radon. “Homes with elevated levels of radon have been found in all three zones. All homes should be tested regardless of geographic location.”

As for Eisen’s theory about the cause of the elevated levels of radon, Long said “there is no conclusive evidence about a link to earthquakes.” 

Stan Edwards, chief of the Division of Environmental Policy and Compliance for the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, added: “Nothing suggests that we have higher levels of radon since the earthquake. We certainly do have areas in our county that are above the EPA’s recommended levels. So, we always recommend that everyone test for radon.”

But Ryan Paris, radiation safety specialist and radon coordinator of the Virginia Department of Health Office of Radiological Health, said there could be a possible link between the earthquake and the elevated radon levels.  “It does make logical sense that an earthquake could make radon levels worse,” Paris said. “An earthquake could conceivable open up bedrock and damage the foundation of a house, allowing radon to enter a home. However, we have no formal documentation to prove that.”

An online search for additional information about radon led me to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Web site with information about their National Environmental Health Tracking Program. The environmental public health tracking program is an “ongoing collection, integration, analysis, and interpretation of data about environmental hazards and their effects on public health.”

Antonio Neri, commander in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control in the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC, said that the agency has been debating the feasibility about including radon in the tracking program.

“The issue is that there is a lot of variation in the quality of information out there,” Neri said. “The biggest problem is the condition of the home when the tests were taken, such as were the windows open or closed, were the doors kept shut, was the test taken before or after fixing radon? Which one do you report to the tracking program? It is very difficult to have any accuracy or consistency in the test results. In general, the CDC is thinking about it but the quality is variable.”

Robert Whitcomb, lead physical scientist at the Radiation Studies Branch of the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, offered another possible reason for increases in radon experienced by the residents of Kemp Mill.

“Increased levels of radon in homes are mostly a factor of today’s lifestyle. Everyone wants an energy-efficient home,” Whitcomb said. “We install new windows, we add weather stripping and caulking, we buy new high efficiency systems. All of these things seal up our homes and limit ways for the radon to escape.”

“Radon occurs everywhere in the environment,” Whitcomb added. “In our homes, we trap the radon. Our home is like a suction cup above the earth. Based on temperature changes and pressure changes, the radon in our home can fluctuate daily.”

Whitcomb was not suggesting that we don’t improve the energy efficiency of our homes. “Testing is the theme here. It is very easy to remediate radon from a technical standpoint. After making improvements to your home, including finishing a basement, it is important to test the radon levels.”

“Too often people are scared about it. It is nothing to be scared of,” Whitcomb said. “There is greater interest in healthy homes. More and more builders are installing radon resistant options in new homes. But people must be aware that energy efficient homes can trap radon.”

Experts suggested that property owners test their homes during the winter, a time when the dwellings are closed up and more sealed and when people may be more exposed to radon because they are indoors. In fact, the U.S. EPA has designated January as radon action month to raise awareness about the potential danger and to encourage people to have their homes tested.

Radon testing is not required in the District, Maryland or Virginia as part of the home sale transaction. Here are some things you might want to consider if you’re buying a house or making your house more energy efficient:

• Contact your state or county radon office or regional EPA office to determine if there are any testing requirements in your local jurisdiction.

• Test your home after making any energy efficiency upgrades or renovations.

• Test a home before buying or immediately upon purchase, even if the home already has a radon reduction system.

• Ask your homebuilder to incorporate a radon reduction system into new home construction.

Yvonne Blanc, a certified radon specialist with the EPA and co-owner of Pro-Spex Home Inspections, said a professional radon test costs under $200 for a short-term 48-hour test. “The longer you leave the test in the house, the more accurate a reading you get,” she said. “Average cost of installing a radon ventilation system is between $1,500 and $2,000 on an average size home.”

Eisen, the homeowner, said it makes sense to him that the possible cause could be his efforts to make his home more energy efficient.

“Our house was drafty when we bought it, so we installed new windows and sealed up the house,” Eisen said. “I didn’t think that improving the energy efficiency of our home would increase our radon levels.”

Previous Jill Chodorov column:

Logan Circle condos to use feng shui

How to find affordable housing for an elderly parent

Jill Chodorov can be reached at