'No excuse for not protecting people': Missouri's lax radon regulations
By Srijita Datta and Claudia Levens Apr 27, 2023
On the day that would have been Gloria Linnertz and her husband’s 32nd anniversary, Illinois passed its first and only radon bill unanimously.
As founder of Citizens for Radioactive Radon Reduction, Linnertz dedicated her life to raising awareness about radon after she lost her husband 17 years ago to stage four lung cancer.
Radon — an invisible and odorless gas which naturally emanates from soil and seeps through flooring — is the second leading cause of lung cancer, responsible for 21,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.
Lack of testing masks radon cancer threat in Missouri
As radon decays, radioactive particles are released. If inhaled into the lungs, those particles can attack the cells. It’s the first leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers, and among those who do smoke, radon significantly compounds the risk of lung cancer.
Federal health officials declared indoor radon “a national health problem” more than 30 years ago.
Yet, the 2008 Illinois Radon Awareness Act that Linnertz fought tooth and nail for is an anomaly across states. The handful of existing regulaions across the country have largely failed to address a problem that experts say is easily handled through relatively simple and affordable technology.
A ‘patchwork’ system
Exposure varies from state to state, city to city and even house to house, the data show, but no region is free of radon. Since any building can be at risk for elevated levels, the only way to know is to test.
The ALA recommends radon reduction measures if testing shows interior radon levels at or above 2 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter of air), a common unit of measurement for the concentration of radioactivity in a gas. The EPA only recommends action beyond 4 pCi/L.
But states vary greatly in the level of testing required. And a lack of testing can lead to a false impression that radon isn’t present.
“The map of radon policy in the U.S. is very patchwork,” said Jane Malone, interim executive director and national policy director for The American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.
According to existing American Lung Association data, Illinois appears to be a higher risk state than Missouri. In Illinois, 34% of radon test results were at or above the action level recommended by the EPA, ranking it at 34th among all states.
Comparatively, in Missouri, a state without any radon regulations, 31% of tests signified radon risk, ranking the state at 32.
But this is only among homes and buildings that have been tested. Public awareness about radon is sparse, evidenced by low testing rates and the patchwork of regulations across states. As a result, crucial, policy-determining and potentially life-saving information about radon is missing, experts say.
In reality, the CDC radon test data, which the ALA insights are based on, shows that just 1,619 buildings were tested in Missouri in 2021.
Thanks to Linnertz’ efforts, Illinois’ radon regulations are much more robust.
After the death of her husband, Linnertz tested their home. The results revealed exposure levels four times as high as the level the EPA says a home becomes unsafe.
“I was very confident in my ignorance – as many, many people are – thinking it couldn’t be in my house,” Linnertz said.
To help push the 2008 radon bill through the Illinois legislature, she visited, informed and testified before Illinois legislators.
Like Linnertz, advocates in Missouri are organizing to bring radon regulations to Missouri.
‘Regulation could change their industry’
Among the 20 states with radon-specific policies are several kinds of regulations. Outside Missouri, other states require licensure or certification for testing and mitigation. Some require testing, radon-resistant new construction or home-buying awareness programs.
In neighboring Illinois, the 2008 Radon Awareness Act mandated homebuyers be given information about radon, making it clearer and easier for buyers to test a house before purchasing and for sellers to track whether a test has been conducted.
Linnertz tried to advocate for a similar homebuyer awareness bill in Missouri – twice. But the bills never made it out of committee.
Malone said that lobbying from national home building associations, alongside soaring housing costs, inflation, mortgage rates and the shortage of affordable housing, make it harder for homebuyers to be vigilant about radon.
“When you survey individual home builders and Realtors about their views, you get a very different story from what national lobbies tell legislators,” she said. “Their mission is to resist change, and radon regulation could change their industry.”
Alongside Lung Cancer Connection and the American Lung Association, the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists’ Midwest Heartland Chapter initiated conversations this fall to push another kind of radon regulation in Missouri in the near future. Such legislation would require testing and mitigation professionals to complete a credentialing program.
AARST runs one of two private national proficiency programs in the country, alongside the National Radon Proficiency Program.
Conducting radon services as a professional does not require any certification in Missouri, which Malone said is a pandora’s box for unintentional errors at best and purposeful malpractice at worst.
“Without any sort of checks and balances on professionals doing this work, it creates an open field for unqualified radon professionals to unknowingly or knowingly take advantage of people who aren’t informed,” Laura Turner, who works for the American Lung Association and co-leads the Missouri Lung Cancer Coalition, said.There are 75 radon contractors or professionals in Missouri certified through NRPP, and around three-quarters of them are in major metropolitan areas of Kansas City and St. Louis. Most are certified to test for the existence of radon, but only 26 are certified for mitigation.
DHHS distributes free radon tests, but in order to have accurate results, the testing kit needs to be set up exactly per the directions. If done correctly, they are accurate, but there’s a lot of room for error, Malone said.
The same room for error exists for professional companies that may be doing work without the training or certification, Cheri Summa, a certified radon professional based in St. Louis, said. Companies that offer radon mitigation and testing services without certifications are abundantly common in Missouri, she said, since there are no barriers to entering the industry.
“A false reading could be the difference between developing lung cancer or not,” Rachel Sanford said. “You can be pretty certain that a certified person will test accurately, but for folks who aren’t certified, it’s really just kind of a guessing game.”
Nine out of 10 times Summa gets a call for a radon installation repair, she ends up fixing a system that was installed improperly, incompletely or inefficiently in the first place by another company.
“Sometimes it’s so bad we have to tear out the system and replace it,” she said. In Missouri, it’s not required to test a radon system after it’s been installed. “I’ve had countless conversations with homeowners where I’ve had to break the news that the system they’ve had for 15 years never mitigated radon properly,” she said.
Brian Hanson, radon program coordinator at Kansas State University, said the lack of certifications in Missouri for radon testing could explain the incomplete and erratic testing numbers recorded by the CDC. Unvetted and voluntary submissions weaken an already poor data set, he said.
“If we wanted to go after any future public protections in Missouri, be it a homebuyer awareness policy or a radon school testing policy, having infrastructure in place for regulating certifications will enable enforcement and compliance,” Malone said. “People assume that everyone who enters their house to do work is certified and insured, but that’s not always the case,” she said.
Other regulatory benchmarks experts in Missouri hope to see are homebuyer awareness programs and requirements for real estate transactions to disclose if the house has been tested for radon, what those radon levels are, and whether the home has been mitigated.
Experts also hope for construction regulations that would encourage installing mitigation systems as houses are built, which can reduce radon levels by as much as 50%, Malone said.
As with certification, Missouri has no statewide regulation encouraging builders to follow a standard to prevent radon, although a handful of municipalities have construction ordinances at the municipal level.
Missouri also lacks policies targeting radon in schools and child care centers. Around 10 states regulate radon in child care facilities, and nearly 20 states have some kind of policy around radon in schools, whether it be new construction or testing requirements. The most recent state to enact school testing requirements is Iowa. The year before, Vermont required it. However, neither of the policies passed require professionals or certified individuals.
“It’s a ripe opportunity for public policy,” Malone said. “There is absolutely no excuse for not protecting people from lung cancer and from radon exposure.”
Missourian reporters Jonathan Jain, Ellie Marshall, Annasofia Scheve and AJ Cassapo contributed to this report.
Originally published on columbiamissourian.com, part of the BLOX Digital Content Exchange.