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Lorna Benson, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published December 23 2013

New law requires radon test disclosure

A new radon disclosure law could put Minnesota on the path of one day eliminating a hidden health risk in the state, where 40 percent of homes contain unsafe levels of the gas.

Starting Jan. 1, anyone who sells a home will be asked if their home has ever been tested for the toxic gas. Currently home sellers simply must report whether they are aware of a radon problem.

Public health officials hope the question will spur more buyers – and sellers – to pursue radon testing because disclosure forms will not make it clear that many homes have never been tested. Test kids typically cost less than $25.

There’s no debate that radon causes lung cancer. The naturally occurring radioactive gas, which can seep into homes from the ground and contaminate the air, has been classified as a carcinogen for more than two decades.

The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that long-term exposure to radon gas kills 700 people in the state annually.

But the urgency of that message hasn’t resonated with homeowners or potential buyers, based on the low number of people who fix radon problems in their homes each year. Minnesota’s new disclosure law is an attempt to make the threat of radon more conspicuous.

“Any prudent buyer, given the health risk, would have a radon test,” said Bill Angell, a University of Minnesota professor who is an expert on radon gas and indoor air quality. “This simply encourages that to happen.”

Angell supports the new disclosure law, which also requires sellers to give a radon warning statement and a “Radon in Real Estate Transactions” fact sheet to buyers.

Both documents highlight the dangers of radon exposure, which are more serious than many other health risks people worry about.

“Your risk, if you’re a Minnesota citizen, of dying from radon exposure in your home is several times greater than your risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident,” he said.

The risk of death from radon is 40 to 45 times greater than the risk of death associated with accidental carbon monoxide exposure in a home, Angell added.

Some Minnesotans already have received that message. The Health Department estimates that, every year, 2,500 to 3,000 homeowners take measures to reduce radon levels in their homes.

Such measures include sealing cracks and other openings in floors and walls or installing systems that use underground pipes and exhaust fans.

That’s a step in the right direction, but only a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of homes and other residential buildings in the state that need radon mitigation are receiving it, said Dan Tranter, a radon program supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health.

“We’d like to see a much bigger change occur in people’s exposure to radon,” he said.

If Illinois is any indication, Tranter may get his wish. Minnesota’s new disclosure law is modeled after legislation enacted nearly six years ago by Illinois lawmakers.

Since then, Illinois has seen a four- to five-fold increase in the number of radon tests conducted in the state. Radon mitigations have doubled, from 6,000 installed systems in 2008 to 12,000 this year, said Pat Daniels, who manages the radon program at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Illinois now requires schools and day cares be tested for radon. The state’s apartment building owners must disclose known radon risks to renters when signing a rental contract.

The surge in activity occurred during the height of the housing market downturn, when a third of home sales were exempt from Illinois’ radon disclosure rules because the properties were in foreclosure.

For Minnesotans, adjusting to the new disclosure rules should be a fairly routine experience for buyers and sellers, say officials with the Minnesota Association of Realtors.

But there’s a chance that some transactions could be delayed, said Paul Eger, the association’s vice president of government affairs.

“If there is an increase in testing, which seems likely,” Eger said, “are the labs out there going to be able to handle the additional volume in a timely manner so that we don’t have delays in transactions?”

To lessen the chances of that scenario stalling a deal, Eger urges homeowners to determine their radon exposure.

“Anybody who’s living in a home right now should consider doing a radon test before they’re in a real estate transaction, particularly if you’re thinking about selling your home,” he said.

Minnesota’s new radon law also applies to new construction. That’s why the Builders Association of Minnesota has been using the radon disclosure language in all of its new home contracts since August, said Remi Stone, the association’s executive vice president.

“We’re ahead of the game and we’re six months early with those notice provisions put into our contracts,” Stone said.