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Radon is a health hazard in 40% of Minnesota homes, but few test for it, say health officials

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers in the United States, and is linked to 21,000 deaths each year, according to the CDC.

The average level of radon in Minnesota’s tested homes is 4.6 pCi/L — more than three times the national average of 1.3 pCi/L.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Not enough Minnesotans are testing their homes for radon, despite the state having some of the highest average levels of the dangerous gas in the country, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) warned last week.

According to an MDH analysis of data collected during a recent five-year period, only 1 percent of properties in Minnesota have been tested for radon.  Yet that same data suggests that 2 in 5 (or about 40 percent) of homes in the state have a radon level of 4.0 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) or higher. 

MDH officials strongly recommend that buildings with verified radon levels of 4.0 pCi/L or higher have a radon mitigation system installed. 

The average level of radon in Minnesota’s tested homes is 4.6 pCi/L — more than three times the national average of 1.3 pCi/L.

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“That has a lot to do with geology in the soil,” said Dan Tranter, supervisor of the Indoor Air Program for MDH, in an interview with MinnPost. “It also has to do with the fact that our houses are closed up much of the year.”

An ‘invisible’ danger

Radon is an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas that is created when uranium breaks down in the soil. The gas then seeps up from the ground, including through pores, cracks or other tiny spaces in a building’s floors or foundation. The gas can accumulate in buildings — and eventually be inhaled by the buildings’ occupants.

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers in the United States, and is linked to 21,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 600 of those annual radon-related deaths occur here in Minnesota, said Tranter.

“It’s very important to test your home for radon because it’s one of the most significant health problems in homes,” he said.

Winter is a particularly good time to do radon testing because, with windows closed, levels of the gas are likely to be concentrated, giving an accurate assessment of the year-round risk. Radon test kits are inexpensive, easy to use and produce results within three to seven days. Hardware stores carry them (starting at around $10), but Minnesotans can also get a test kit from participating city or county health departments at low or no cost.

Not many options

What is not available free of cost, however, is the mitigation system for reducing radon levels in a home, which usually involves installing a pipe under the house, with a continuously running fan that pulls the radon from the ground and vents it outside.

“Some people cannot afford the $1,500 to $2,000 to fix their house,” said Tranter, “and there aren’t grants out there to help them pay for that.”  

Nor do renters currently have any options — other than to move when their lease is up — if a radon test detects high levels of the gas in their rental house or apartment and their landlord declines to fix the health hazard, said Tranter.

Homebuyers, however, do have some protections. New building code requirements enacted in 2009 has led to fewer radon gas problems in newly constructed homes, said Tranter. And the 2014 Minnesota Radon Awareness Act requires home sellers to tell potential buyers whether their home has been tested for radon gas and, if so, what has been done to fix the problem.

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These changes — along with an improved economy and greater awareness about the dangers of radon — may be why there has been a threefold increase in the number of homes tested for radon since 2010, as reported by the MDH. 

Still, with only 1 percent of homes in the state tested — and 40 percent of homes containing potentially dangerous levels of the gas — we still have a long way to go.

FMI: MDH has a host of useful radon-related information on its website, including an interactive map that shows county-by-county radon levels (based on tested homes) and a list of state-certified radon contractors/mitigators. The website also includes important information about when and how to test your house — and how to interpret the results.