I’ve noticed a great deal of uncertainty out there about requirements for performing radon tests in my part of New York state, near Buffalo. I wanted to answer a few questions about radon testing, and clarify what New York state requires of radon testing companies.
What is Radon?
It’s a radioactive, invisible gas that you can’t taste or smell. It’s a byproduct of radioactive decay of the element radium (Ra). Radon has been implicated in causing lung cancer, and according to the American Cancer Society, it’s the biggest cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking.
Why should a home be tested for radon?
Since radon is a carcinogen, it makes sense that you would want to know if the level of gas is at a safe level or not. Taking Erie County, NY for example (where Alto Home Inspection, LLC) conducts radon testing and home inspections, there are very few neighborhoods where zero dangerous levels were reported (as of 2012).
Testing for radon is an affordable service, and in my opinion should be done within a year of moving into a home and every 5 years or so afterward. If a radon mitigation system is installed, the US EPA actually recommends having the home re-tested every other year. (I’ve tested for levels in houses with mitigation systems, and found terribly high results.)
What are some misconceptions about radon in homes?
I’ve encountered a lot of misinformation about radon during my travels as the owner of Alto Home Inspection, LLC:
- A real estate agent insisted to my client that a radon test wasn’t necessary because there was already a radon mitigation system in place. This was bad advice, first of all because it’s terrible advice to assume that a mitigation system works properly, and secondly because the EPA recommends that homes with mitigation systems are tested every two years.
- My client was convinced by others that a radon test wasn’t needed because the neighbor’s house “didn’t have radon”. There were two issues here: radon levels from one house to the next in a neighborhood can be wildly different, and radon isn’t a binary situation. The higher the radon level is, the greater your health is at risk.
I honestly think that because radon can’t be detected with the naked eye, that many people think it’s a myth.
How’s a radon test performed?
Testing for radon involves placing a detection device or collection material in a home for a minimum of 48 hours. Depending on the situation, results may be provided immediately after the test period ends, or a sample may be sent to a lab for analysis.
In NY state, there are a two common options available to radon testers and home inspectors:
- Charcoal canister method – This involves placing a small charcoal canister in the home, retrieving it when the test period ends, and sending it to a lab. This method provides slow results that often aren’t compatible with shorter home purchase contract contingency periods.
- Continuous Radon Monitor (CRM) – This improved method uses an electronic device, which typically can report on conditions that may indicate poor test conditions, such as windows being open. Only NY Accredited ELAP labs can analyze results from CRMs.
My company (Alto Home Inspection, LLC), only uses CRMs because of their superior turnaround time for test results, and because we can determine if the results can be trusted (due to air pressure, temperature and humidity sensors). Since we’re an ELAP certified lab, we provide super-fast results.
Who can legally test for radon in NY state?
There are literally zero regulations in New York state, Erie County or Buffalo that prevent someone from offering radon testing services. Any home inspector or environmental consultant can actually conduct a test, but there are a couple nuances to be aware of:
- A home inspector (or anyone else) can perform radon testing as a professional service without gaining any certification or license whatsoever
- Anyone can purchase charcoal radon testing cartridges, place and retrieve them from a client’s home, send them to a lab and provide the lab report to the client.
The use of continuous radon monitors (CRMs) is a little tricker. These devices are precision instruments which require regular quality assurance checks, such as background checks, cross-checks and calibration. The NY Department of Health regulates CRMs. How can a home inspector legally use a CRM?
- You can lease one from a laboratory that has received certification from the NY Department of Health for the use of continuous radon monitors. You will not be able to analyze the report data on you own, however the lab that you lease from should generate a report that you can forward to your client.
- Your company can seek NY Department of Health accreditation, at which point you will be responsible for purchasing CRMs, maintaining them, and documenting lab activities.
Some states such as Minnesota are more progressive in their regulation of those who actually conduct tests. Unlike NY, radon testers there are all required to gain a state-level license. My opinion is that this is a good thing.
In New York State, if you see an inspector use an electronic device for radon testing, make sure that ELAP lab ID number is listed on the device itself. If there is none, then ask the inspector what lab owns the CRM. If they can’t adequately provide this information, then they may be running afoul of state law.
What about home radon testing systems?
Homeowners have the option of installing a type of continuous radon monitor in their own homes. These systems are less precise over a short period of time than their professional counterparts, so for real estate transactions they shouldn’t be used.
But I recommend something like the Airthings House Kit to my clients who are looking to track their long-term radon exposure, and at the same time find out about mold and other bad stuff in the air.
Risks of using a bad testing company
When you decide to have a radon test done at your home, or your future home, you are trusting the company and individual that you hire to follow proper guidelines and standards. If these aren’t followed, then the test can essentially be meaningless.
In a real estate radon testing situation, there’s a limited window of time in which to run the test AND have a home inspection (in areas of Western NY near me in Buffalo this is typically five days). Proper radon testing procedures can be tricky to follow, and unqualified radon testers may not be familiar with them or understand the consequences of not following them.
How should a radon test be performed?
Procedures for testing for radon were developed by the US EPA in the 1980’s and 90’s after the radioactive danger of radon came to light. The most up-to-date procedures and guidelines are documented in ANSI/AARST MAH-2019, “Protocol for Measuring Radon in the Home”.
A few basics to keep an eye out for to make sure a radon test is done correctly:
- Windows and doors should be kept shut for the duration of the test, and ideally 12 hours prior to the start
- The test device should be placed on the lowest livable area of the home. This doesn’t mean that the test should be a dank basement where you don’t spend time, but if it’s a basement that’s usable as live/work space, then it should go there.
- The device should be away from blowing fans
- It’s OK to run air conditioners and furnaces, but if you have a heat-recovery ventilator, it shouldn’t be used during the test.
Why is a continuous radon monitor better than charcoal canister testing?
Continuous radon monitors, also called “CRMs”, provide test results on the same day that the test completes. On the other hand, charcoal canisters must be sent to a lab for analysis and so the turnaround time can be three days or longer.
What’s involved in installing a radon mitigation system?
Mitigation systems generally cost between $800-$1500 and consist of piping that runs under the home’s basement slab, a fan that’s placed outside of the home and piping that runs from the fan to above the roof line. The piping near the slab should be equipped with a mamometer, or air pressure indicator, that serves to show if the fan is functioning.