What Lurks Beneath Your Home
Not all homebuyers or owners test for radon — here’s why, where, and how you should.
By Todd VanSickle | May 4, 2019
There's a potential killer in almost every home in Michigan. It’s silent, invisible, and scentless. And, although there is a way to identify it, most homeowners will not.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Surgeon General’s Office, as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths are caused each year by radon, the second leading cause of lung cancer in the nation.
Radon is a naturally occurring gas that seeps into homes from the ground and can slowly build up to become a health threat.
The EPA has labeled nine southern Michigan counties — Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Jackson, Washtenaw, Cass, St. Joesph, Branch, Hillsdale, and Lenawee — as Zone 1 for radon, meaning that homes in those counties have the highest potential to have radon levels higher than four picocuries per liter, the suggested action level assigned by the EPA.
The town of Republic, in Marquette County is considered Michigan’s hot spot — it’s seen 458 picocuries per liter.
In northern Michigan, most counties — including Benzie, Grand Traverse, Manistee, Wexford, and Kalkaska — fall under Zone 3, which is less than two picocuries per liter. However, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Charleviox, and Emmet counties are Zone 2, which have a predicted average indoor radon screening level between two and four picocuries per liter. However, average is just that — an average. The highest radon level recorded in Traverse City, for example, was 37 picocuries per liter.
(Overall, Michigan's radon zone average is 2.41 picocuries per liter, ranking it 38th among all states.)
Homeowners can test their dwelling with a kit from their local health department, but most testing is done during a home inspection prior to purchase.
David Sherman is the owner and radon inspector of Northern Home Inspections in Boyne City. He has been in business since 1996 and inspects about 25 homes a year for radon, which is an ancillary service that is not required by state law.
“We always mention it if they don’t ask,” Sherman said, which costs less than $200.
The highest level Sherman has seen is about 14 picocuries per liter, in Gaylord.
In real estate transactions, Sherman uses two testing devices that are placed side by side to find the average of radon present in a home.
“The average is super close,” Sherman said.
Testing is done on the lowest livable level of the dwelling, according to Sherman.
“You don’t do it on the crawl space; you do it on the first level,” Sherman said.
Homes with basements and a partial crawl space tend to have the highest levels of radon, according to Sherman.
“That is where we have seen the most common problems,” he said.
Radon testers are not required to have any formal training, and most homeowners can conduct the test themselves. However, Sherman has attended an EPA radon proficiency class.
When a home is found to have radon levels above the suggested action level of four picocuries per liter, a mitigation system is put in place.
“If somebody has a house that is above the action limit and they put in a mitigation system, I always look at that as a selling point,” Sherman said. “And then it is being dealt with and it has cleaner air.”
Douglas Hull of Compliance Incorporated in Traverse City is the one who gets the call when a home has radon levels above normal. He has been mitigating radon in homes for about 18 years.
“Our Brighton office does more,” Hull said. “We maybe do 40 a year [in northern Michigan]. Radon mitigation is about three to five percent of our business. … Radon is kind of a side business for us.”
However, he said there has been an increase in the number of people who are requesting radon mitigation systems in northern Michigan.
“People are aware of it,” Hull said, who encourages everyone to get their homes tested. “But there are a lot of people who don’t test.” (Hull said granulated activated charcoal tests, which are available at the local health department, are a good option to see if radon is present in a residence.)
If radon is found, installing a mitigation system is usually the next step. It involves drilling a hole in a basement’s cement floor and venting it with a PVC pipe routed outside the house and outfitted with a weather-proof fan.
“It doesn’t take much pressure differential to pull any gas — that is what radon is — from under your slab,” Hull said.
On average, it costs about $800 to $1,500 to put a mitigation system in place.
The highest radon level that Hull has seen is 28 picocuries per liter.
In Michigan, there are no radon-testing requirements in real estate transactions.
Mathew Koeplin is a real estate agent for Key Realty. He sells properties in Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Antrim counties. He said his clients have never requested radon testing.
“In the four years that I’ve been doing this I think I have had only one client ask me about it,” Koeplin said. “And I referred them to a home inspector.”
He said radon doesn’t even seem to be a concern for homebuyers.
“It is not even on their radar,” Koeplin said.
However, he said most homebuyers almost always have inspections done, but testing for radon is not included in most home inspections.
“If the buyer wants it, they can do it,” Koeplin said. “If they deem that it’s necessary, they can.”
Radon testing is something that Koeplin believes should be left up to the homebuyer. He thinks it could slow down the buying process, but acknowledges that the potential benefit might outweigh the risk of delaying an offer or deal closure.
“It could be a few days delay as a trade off for your health,” Koeplin said. “It definitely could slow it down and put a drag on it. As real estate agents, we like to get the closing [done as quickly possible], but I would rather have that option than not.”
Aaron Berndt is the state radon officer. Based in Lansing, he’s part of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He handles calls from the public and does several outreach programs to help educate people about health concerns about radon throughout the state.
He said radon shouldn’t affect home values or sales because it only takes two days to test and a day to fix.
“The home can be marketed as one that has been fixed,” Berndt said. “When we get calls on the hotline from people looking at a home and are interested in buying it and they say, ‘It has elevated levels of radon. Should we walk away?’ We encourage people to buy it, because radon can always be fixed.”
Educating the public about radon is an important part of Berndt’s job. His department has a contract with the Michigan Association of Broadcasters to help reach residents about the health concerns related to radon.
“We are working hard and really pushing radio and television ads trying to get that information out there, so people can make an informed decision,” Berndt said.
Berndt said homeowners should be concerned, because every home has radon, which is a Class A carcinogen that causes lung cancer.
“It is an issue, statewide. We have elevated levels in every county,” Berndt said. “That is why we encourage every home to be tested. One home can have an issue, and the neighbors directly next to them may or may not. It can be localized or it can be whole neighborhoods.”
He added that every home is going to have some level of radon. Berndt explained that radon comes from uranium, and it decays over time. Uranium has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years.
“The issue isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It something we are going to have to deal with,” Brandt said. “But the good news is that if I was going to have an environmental issue, this is one I would want. Because I can test my home myself and it is relatively easy and inexpensive to do. Everything can be fixed.”
Know Where You Stand
To find the latest radon levels in your county, as well as NEHA-certified measurement specialists, visit: mi-radon.info/MI_counties.html