Radon Test Results in Wisconsin Area Raise Red Flags
The results of radon testing in the Fox Valley are in — and it's not good news, especially in the Neenah-Menasha area.
The latest testing data compiled by the state Department of Health Services suggests nearly half the homes in Winnebago, Outagamie, Waupaca and Calumet counties contain radon concentrations surpassing the federal safety standard.
The readings reported in homes in Winnebago and Waupaca counties were off the charts, registering radon concentrations some 60 times higher than what the EPA deems safe.
David Daniels, the owner of Radon Specialists of Wisconsin in Neenah, knows that some residents question the prevalence of radon contamination in and near their homes. But he said that should not deter them from testing radon levels in their homes, using inexpensive and widely available radon test kits.
The Fox Valley "is one of the worst areas in the country when it comes to radon, and that's not based on my results alone," said Daniels, who founded his radon testing and mitigation firm a decade ago.
To Daniels, the radon test failure rate refers to the proportion of tested homes where radon concentrations exceed the federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guideline for the uppermost safety standard for radiation content in air within the lowest-level living area of a home — 4 picocuries per liter, or 4 pCi/L.
Nearly 70 percent of the homes in the Fox Valley would deliver test results exceeding that safety standard, Daniels said.
In the Neenah-Menasha area, "it's probably close to a 90 percent failure rate," he said, describing the Twin Cities as the rough "epicenter" of a regional health concern attributable to geological happenstance.
The stone below the Twin Cities of northern Winnebago County contains trace amounts of uranium, which converts to radioactive radon gas as it decays. The gas usually enters homes through their basements, rising through their hard but porous concrete floors.
The 2009 radon test results, reported to the state Department of Health largely by firms selling radon-detecting kits to the public, reported failure rates averaging 48 percent among homes in Outagamie, Winnebago, Waupaca and Calumet counties.
Among those individual counties, only Outagamie reported a failure rate of less than half.
The EPA began urging homeowners to test for and — when necessary — address indoor radon levels in 1999, when the National Academy of Sciences identified the radioactive gas as the second-leading cause of lung cancer deaths, after smoking.
The agency estimates lifelong exposure to in-home radon at the 4 pCi/L threshold presents a 7 in 1,000 risk of lung cancer in people who never smoked.
The threat to current smokers is more dramatic, increasing the risk at that same concentration to 6 percent of that population.
The risk of radon-induced lung cancer deaths rise in direct relation to radon concentration levels, meaning the lung cancer risk doubles at 8 pCi/L. The 1999 report estimates long-term exposure to radon is responsible for between 15,000 and 20,000 American cancer deaths each year.
The federal government has issued its advisory guidelines for homeowners, but has left radon-related regulatory decisions to individual states.
Wisconsin, unlike most of its neighboring states, has no laws regulating radon testing and mitigation firms, or requiring the radon-resistant construction of new homes.
Illinois, by contrast, regulates both.
Chuck Warzecha, who heads the state Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health, said the state has no enforcement authority, but tries to resolve some disputes about faulty or deficient radon system installations.
"We will offer advice on how to correct problems with an installation," he said, "but we don't have any authority to issue orders."
Roughly 3,500 home radon-mitigation systems are installed in Wisconsin annually, Warzecha said. His office learns of 20 or so radon system-related consumer complaints each year.
When unresolved disputes involve contracts or business agreements, they might go to the Better Business Bureau or wind up in small claims court, he said.
"We don't regulate everything that causes harm to people," Warzecha said. "Even carbon monoxide detectors aren't required in Wisconsin homes — at least not yet — but they are in other states."
Daniels estimates just 10 percent of the Fox Valley's homes have been tested for radon to date, despite the availability of inexpensive and accurate test kits. A typical radon mitigation system installation might run about $800, he said.
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