Like many home inspectors in Western New York, Alto Home Inspection offers radon testing as a service that can be coordinated to occur at the same time as a home inspection. Even though the general public is becoming more aware of the potentially dangerous gas, I’m still surprised that more home buyers near Buffalo haven’t been made aware of the risks associated with it.
My intention with this article is to provide information and data to help home buyers understand what radon is, the potential risk to their health and what can be done about high levels if they are found.
What is radon, anyway?
Radon is a radioactive gas that results from the decay of the element radium, which is present in very small quantities throughout the earth’s crust. (according to Britannica.com, over 20 million tons of radium are contained in the earth’s crust.)
Radon rises up through the earth’s crust and is pulled into homes by way of pressure differences between the ground, home and outside air.
Radon is measured in pico Curies per Liter, or “pCi/L”, which is standard unit of measurement named after Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, the co-discoverers of Radium.
Why is radon gas dangerous?
Radon gas can cause lung cancer when people are exposed to it over long periods of time. Radioactive decay products of radon attach to dust in the air, and can be inhaled into the lungs. Dust particles may lodge in lung tissue, remain there and damage cellular DNA. In certain circumstances, this damage can lead to lung cancer.
Those who smoke carry a much higher risk of developing lung cancer when radon is present. According to the NY State Department of Health, 29 out of 1000 people will develop lung cancer after a lifetime exposure to air measuring a 4.0 pCi/L concentration of radon. The risk to non-smokers is much lower – about 2 out of 1000 will develop the cancer.
Fortunately, residential radon testing can be performed by qualified companies, and reducing high levels is affordable.
Are all WNY homes in potential danger of high radon? (yes, even in Buffalo)
A common myth spread by some in the Western New York real estate industry (even some home inspectors) is that homes in the city of Buffalo don’t have high levels of the dangerous gas. This misinformation seems to feed into home buyers, who understandably place a certain amount of trust in their real estate agents.
According to the New York State Department of Health, “A radon problem can be found in any home, regardless of how old or new it is.”
NY Department of Health testing data from October, 2019 (accessed in April of 2020) shows that almost 5% of homes tested in the city of Buffalo had levels above the US EPA’s action level of 4.0 piCi/L, with the highest level being above 63!
The state tracks testing results from Department of Health ELAP approved radon testing labs, such as Alto Home Inspection LLC, are required to report data on a quarterly and annual basis. Below I’ve listed compiled for municipalities in Erie county.
Keeping in mind that this analysis is based on data from October of 2019, a few things come to mind:
- The “high level” for every town listed was dangerously high
- Kenmore had the lowest average level, of less than 1%, but with a “high level” of almost 40x the US EPA action level
- Amherst had the highest level in the county, at 956 pCi/L!
- Almost half (43.87%) of homes tested in the town of Aurora (includes Village of East Aurora), had measured levels or radon above the EPA action level of 4.0 pCi/L.
My take on this is that even in areas with very low average radon levels, extremely high measurements are still seen. Therefore it cannot be professionally responsible for a real estate agent to discourage their clients from having a home professionally tested for radon.
|Town||Total Homes Tested||% Above Action Level (4.0)||Highest Radon Level|
|Grand Island||120||1.53%||98 pCi/L|
|North Collins||39||21.21%||33 pCi/L|
|Orchard Park||665||20.73%||547 pCi/L|
|West Seneca||363||10.29%||308 pCi/L|
Professional testing ensures accuracy of results
There are no county or town-specific requirements for radon testing in New York State, but the NY Department of Health requires that all radon test results are analyzed by a laboratory that they have certified.
When it comes to real estate transactions, timing is key. The US EPA provides guidance for homeowners and sellers in this guide, in order to help you understand your options. Keep in mind that the minimum test duration permitted by the state is 48 hours.
It’s important that the testing company use devices designed for these short-term tests. Our fleet of testing devices consists entirely of Airthings Corentium Pro monitors. These devices are approved by the AARST-NRPP for use in real estate transactions.
Alto Home Inspection, LLC is one of only four labs in Erie County accredited by the state of New York for analysis of radon in air. This designation provides assurance to home buyers that we adhere to strict testing and reporting guidelines.
- We are required to adhere to US EPA guidelines for proper placement of radon monitors, including proper positioning in relation to the floor, walls and windows.
- We perform quality control checks of our testing devices on a routine basis.
- Our radon testing devices are calibrated on an annual basis.
- Your radon testing report will be easy to understand and read.
- Our lab undergoes regular audits to ensure compliance with quality control and reporting guidelines.
- We have solid recommendations for radon mitigation companies, should mitigation be necessary.
Before you select a company to test your home for radon, keep in mind that most radon testers are not subject to any scrutiny when it comes to their testing procedures. They simply do what they want and how they want to do it. Utilizing a NY ELAP certified lab provides you with assurance that testing protocol will be correctly followed.
Home radon detectors and monitors are great for long-term tracking
Airthings produces an excellent consumer-grade device that provides long-term radon levels, including weekly and monthly results. Its battery life of up to two years makes it a low-maintenance device. Buy the Airthings Corentium Home with this link, and receive a 10% discount. (note that we receive a small commission if you purchase here). You may also use the discount code “AHI-10OFF” anywhere on airthings.com for the same discount on any of their consumer products.
The Airthings Corentium Home is an an excellent addition to our professional testing service, but keep in mind that it’s not suitable for real estate transactions since its short-term accuracy isn’t acceptable for this purpose.
Is testing needed when a radon mitigation system is already installed?
Radon mitigation systems are very simple systems, usually consisting of a few components that together should reduce the radon level to below 2.0 pCi/L:
- One or more holes in the concrete slab, usually in the basement
- 4″ or greater PVC pipe that leads to the roof line outside of the home
- An inline fan installed on the exterior of the house, or sometimes in the attic (if unfinished)
- A mamometer, which is an air pressure indicator that should be installed in the basement of the home. This simple device lets you know if the fan is operating
The idea is that the fan should pull air (containing radon gas) out from under the house before it has a chance to enter the livable areas of the home.
The problem however is that some radon mitigation companies don’t test after the system is installed, so they have no way of knowing if the fan is strong enough to do the job, or if they perhaps need an additional hole in the concrete slab.
Other issues can arise from old mitigation fans that simply fail, or systems that discharge air near windows or doors.
We recommend that houses with radon mitigation systems are tested every 2-3 years to ensure that home is safe and that the system is doing what it’s supposed to do.
Correcting the problem isn’t a major investment
Radon mitigation systems typically cost anywhere from $750 to $1500, and can be installed year-round. In a real estate purchase situation, often times the seller is willing to pay for the installation or credit the cost to the buyer at closing.