Most homeowners know to check for lead in their houses — and mold.
But another potentially dangerous element lurks unseen in many Oregon homes — radon gas.
The clear, odorless gas rises up from certain soils and is the second largest cause of lung cancer — albeit well behind cigarette smoke.
Oregon lawmakers will consider a bill in the 2009 session to ‘radon-proof’ all new buildings. But as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, for now, the old adage applies: buyer beware.
One year ago Javier Mena and Luann Deautremont were looking around Portland for a home. They found a 1925 bungalow in Irvington, which had been torn down to the studs and completely rebuilt. That way, says Luann holding her new baby, they could be sure they wouldn’t have trouble with asbestos, mold, or any of the other afflictions that can plague an old house.
Luann Deautremont: "We thought about lead, because that's more out there, you can pick up pamphlets at the pediatricians office on lead. So we were pretty happy with this house, because it was finished, but radon never really crossed my mind."
Kristian: "So when did radon reach your radar screen?"
Luann Deautremont: "I was doing some research on the internet about lead and I got on the EPA website and found some information about radon there."
The web page advised her to buy a $25 home test kit.
Luann Deautremont: "I didn't really think anything was going to come of it. I didn't think it would be a problem. I just thought that would be one more thing to check of my list of things to worry about."
But after placing the test kit in their basement for a coupe of days, things turned out differently.
Luann Deautremont: "They said that our radon levels were high. It was a 12 when a 4 is considered acceptable by the EPA."
Krsitian: "What was your reaction?"
Luann Deautremont: "Obviously I was worried and scared and didn't know, hadn't really done the research as to what the effects where. And having small children, that was my biggest worry."
She went back to the EPA website.
Luann Deautremont: "There was only a couple of names on there of people that were certified to do radon mitigation work in Portland. So I just called everyone on the list, pretty much the same day, because I was planning to have a baby and we were planning a home birth, so I didn't want my son to be born in a radon environment."
The same day her baby Marcos was born, the $1700 mitigation system was finished. It involved digging a small pit in the basement, filling it with larger rocks — so gas could accumulate there — and then laying a pipe from the pit, up to the roof — so the gas could escape.
Deautremont and Mena say the house doesn’t smell or look any different, but they’re pleased to have the peace of mind that goes with knowing their son isn’t being enveloped in a radioactive gas. They’re also a little angry.
Javier Deautremont: "Every homeowner normally gets a home inspection before they purchase a home. I wish the inspector did something about it, or at least notified us that there could be a test done to verify if we have high levels of radon."
Kristian: "Now if you'd have found out that you had levels of radon averaging 12, when 4 is the EPA standard. Would you have bought this property?"
Javier Deautremont: "I would probably have tried to find out what are the proactive steps to reduce those levels…"
Kristian: "Maybe it would have been a negotiating tactic and something that would need to be fixed before you bought the place."
Javier Deautremont: "Definitely, before I bought the property I would have had the system installed — not at my expense."
Oregon, like the rest of the West Coast, isn't as badly affected by radon as the East Coast. But it turns out, part of what used to be the east coast now lies underneath towns like Hood River, Vancouver, Portland and Salem delivered by the massive Missoula Floods 15,000 years ago.
Contractor and home designer, Steve Tucker, specializes in radon mitigation.
Steve Tucker: "There are actually room-sized boulders almost 400 feet above sea level in the Willamette Valley that are from the Missoula Floods. The floods were that strong and that much volume. One of the most infamous areas and one of the most talk about when someone talks about radon is Alameda Ridge, and Alameda Ridge is actually a gravel bar imported by those floods that is a shadow if you will tailed behind Rocky Butte."
Think of a shell on the beach on a windy day. It grows a tail of sand behind it. That Tucker says, is how Alameda Ridge formed. But high levels of radon can be found in many Oregon towns.
A simple crack in a home's foundation allows it to float up and fill a basement. To complicate matters, the house next door might have no problems at all.
Terry Lindsey, of Oregon Public Health Division radiation protection service, says a simple test kit, costing between $10 and $30 dollars, can set a homeowner's mind at rest.
Terry Lindsey: "What you want to be careful of is that the test kit includes the laboratory analysis. Some do and some don't and some you have to pay extra for the laboratory analysis."
Lindsey says currently there's no state law that requires a radon test when a home changes hands, but many states, especially on the East Coast, do have such laws.
Oregon state senator, Laurie Monnes-Anderson, says Washington State just passed a bill that would require that all new construction be radon-proofed and something similar is being discussed in Oregon.
Laurie Monnes-Anderson: "I've actually got some names of people who are willing to come down from Washington to testify in front of the committees here in Oregon. And I think that we really need some information on it, because if it truly is a problem here in the state of Oregon. Then we definitely want to make sure that we provide an environment that is safer for our residents."
Another State Senator, Margaret Carter, feels the same way.
Indeed Whitaker Middle School in her North Portland district had to be bulldozed because of high levels of radon gas and mold. But many listeners may doubt the threat.
After all, people have been living with radon forever. Doctor Rachel Sanborn, specializes in lung cancer at OHSU.
Rachel Sanborn: "It has been linked and been shown to produce a higher risk of particular cancers, particularly lung cancer."
So has she tested her own home?
Yes, and it now has a remediation system installed.