Today, Reuben and Tessa touch on some key points about radon.
Reuben discusses what radon is, and addresses the biggest arguments about testing, and myths about it. He mentions that health authorities have claimed that radon is a silent killer that causes lung cancer.
They talk about the statistics of radon elevation, as well as the normal and acceptable levels and standards in the US vs Canada and other countries. Reuben also talks about the Radon Disclosure Act which is a requirement when selling and buying houses. Tessa adds that the requirement to install radon mitigation systems is not based on their effects on people
Reuben shares about a self-testing kit that is available at mn.radon.com.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: Welcome to my house. Welcome to the Structure Talk podcast, a production of Structure Tech Home Inspections. My name is Reuben Saltzman, I’m your host alongside building science geek Tessa Murry. We help home inspectors up their game through education, and we help homeowners to be better stewards of their houses. We’ve been keeping it real on this podcast since 2019, and we are also the number one home inspection podcast in the world, according to my mom.
RS: Well, welcome everybody.
Tessa Murry: Has Patty heard that? Has she heard the new intro.
RS: I think she has. I’m sure she has. Yeah.
TM: She hasn’t said anything?
RS: She hasn’t told me anything about it. Maybe I say it too quietly in the intro. Maybe she doesn’t hear it. I don’t know. That’s possible.
TM: I am surprised.
RS: Yeah. Yeah. Or maybe she’s many episodes behind. Who knows? But at any rate, welcome to another episode of the Structure Talk podcast. I am your host alongside Tessa Murray and today we’re gonna be talking about radon. Lot about radon… No, we’re just gonna talk a little bit about radon. We’re not doing a deep dive, but there’s a few topical discussions for us to have today. But first, my family and I were watching, what’s the show? Manifest. It’s a Netflix series. And we all agreed that we found Tessa’s doppelganger.
RS: I had to show Tessa before the show and Tessa thought this was a little uncanny. It’s Holly Taylor. You can Google Holly Taylor. Not every photo. I mean, a lot of these are just like runway photos and whatever, but definitely your doppelganger. We kept watching the show and we’re like, “It’s Tessa. It’s Tessa. We’re watching Tessa.” So, that’s you.
TM: Well, that’s so funny. I’d never heard of her before, but yeah, when I googled her, I could definitely see some similarities. So, yeah. I mean, of course not the runway hair and the makeup, but the eyes at least, and maybe even the smile too.
RS: Oh yeah, for sure.
TM: That’s so cute. Do you have a doppelganger, Reuben?
TM: I don’t know if I’ve ever…
RS: No, I don’t.
TM: If I’ve ever come across anyone that I think looks just like you.
RS: I definitely don’t. The one that I used to get, people used to say Nicolas Cage, but I don’t see it at all. I don’t see it at all.
TM: I… Nah, I don’t think so. Yeah.
RS: No. I don’t claim it. I’ve had a number of people say it but I don’t agree. I’m not accepting that one.
TM: Yeah. Oh, man. So what have you been up to Reuben?
RS: Staying busy, bunch of stuff, kind of traveling. We took a little family vacation. The whole family went out of town for a while, we’re gone for about a week and gonna be going out of town a little bit more. Got a few trips planned. I’ve got a board meeting coming up for the examination board of home inspectors. Got that coming up here.
TM: Where are they taking you this time?
RS: Somewhere warm. I’ll leave it at that. [laughter] We don’t have our meetings in cold destinations. And then I’ll be going to St. Louis to teach for an ASHI chapter coming up in March. I think I’m teaching on St. Patrick’s Day, I believe. So if there’s anybody in that area, I’ll be coming to your area to teach a class doing, I can’t remember. I’ll be teaching for four hours and I’ll be bringing my daughter along with me. We’re turning it into kind of a weekend trip. And we’ll go out there on a Thursday. We’ll come back on a Sunday and we’ll see what St. Louis has to offer, so.
TM: Oh, that’s fun. Yeah. That’s really, really cool. Wow, you’ve got a busy schedule as always, but it sounds like it’s packed full of a good things.
RS: It is. It is. Yeah. Just did my second CrossFit competition for the year. That was a blast. And I can hardly walk right now.
TM: Are you sitting or you’re standing at your desk today?
RS: I am standing. I’ve heard that sitting is the new smoking. So I’ve been very committed to standing at this sit stand desk a lot more than sitting. I don’t sit much anymore. Ever since I’ve been hearing about it and reading about it, I don’t sit much anymore. But legs are definitely sore right now, but I’ll recover. How about you, Tess? What’s going on in your world?
TM: Well, yeah, speaking of injuries from sitting, I was gonna say, I just turned 35 on Saturday, so I had a birthday celebrated. Thank you very much. And now I’m officially like, I feel like middle-aged. I don’t know if that’s accurate.
RS: No. No.
TM: But I feel mid thirties officially. Trying to wrap my head around that. But I’ve been sitting a lot more the last couple of years just because of shifts in what I’m doing. I used to be out in the field and doing inspections and all that moving around, and I really enjoyed that. But when things changed and I was doing a lot of the training and hiring and leadership stuff and teaching, I was sitting a lot. And it’s funny, but I had this kind of pinch in my hip that started like a year ago. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor and talking to her about it. And part of like sitting, your body just kind of tightens up and your ligaments tighten up. And so I’ve been working on stretching them and stretching my hips and getting back into some yoga and doing all of that. And it’s significantly helped.
TM: But I’ve noticed, now that I’m 35 I need to start doing more aggressive stretching on a regular basis and just moving my body, because I think sitting is definitely has been detrimental to my physical health for sure.
RS: That’s what they say. That’s what they say. Yeah. The older you get the more important all that stuff becomes.
TM: Oh, man. And the recovery time is much slower, all of that. But yeah, anyways one other piece of information I think on the last podcast episode, I might have alluded to this, kind of a teaser about part-time job that I might be doing but it’s official. I am a part-time employee now of a wedding venue. And it is a completely new experience for me. I’ve never done anything like it before. I actually met the owner in 2019. I did the inspection for her when she bought this farm with a farmhouse and multiple buildings. And so I know her and she’s been looking for help and I was like, “I’ve got some time and this sounds like fun. How can I help you?” So that has been interesting. A couple weeks ago there was a wedding in this barn and there were 300 guests. It was a massive wedding.
TM: And I was there and I was kind of just helping out behind the scenes, and inevitably, of course, I get sick again. [chuckle] So the last month I’ve been sick with COVID and then whatever this respiratory thing is too. So trying to get over that. But yeah, it’s been exciting and it’s been fun and I appreciate being able to kind of have a job that is different every day and moving around, being outside, meeting new people, and just a variety of things. So even helping out with some of the facilities too. She’s got a great handyman that upbeats the building, but no one else understands anything, any other parts of the building. So hopefully I can help her out with that too. Even documenting things like their weatherization processes for their different buildings.
RS: Oh, yeah.
TM: So, it’s been fun.
RS: You can be the advisor to the handyman.
TM: Yeah. We’re becoming friends. We’re becoming friends.
RS: Sweet. Sweet. I love it.
TM: Yeah. Well, should we get into it? So let’s dive into the radon discussion.
RS: We’re gonna talk a little bit about radon. I did a blog post about this back in January. ‘Cause January is Radon Awareness Month, I believe. I haven’t written about radon or I haven’t done any videos on it, so thought it’s time to do a little update on it. And I just wanna touch on some of the key points about radon. Just address some of the biggest arguments that I hear to radon testing and address some of the biggest myths that we hear. We’re not doing a super deep dive, but just cover a few of those more important topics. And number one, just what radon is, it’s a gas that comes up from the ground. It’s caused by the decay of Uranium 238, I think. [laughter], I don’t remember. Is that it?
TM: That’s above my pay grade. [laughter]
RS: It’s caused by the decay of something in the earth. I’m not the radon expert that I used to be. I used to talk about this stuff day in and day out, but it’s a gas that comes up from the ground.
TM: Definitely decaying Uranium. Right? Decaying Uranium in the soil.
RS: We can agree on that. It has a very short half life, which means that even if you completely air out a house, you open up all the windows, you clear everything out, after 12 hours, it’s gonna be right back to where it was before. So that’s why when you’re doing a radon on test, a short term radon test, the house is always supposed to be closed up for 12 hours prior to the start of the test. It’s a simulate wintertime conditions. And the reason you don’t want to have radon in your house is because it causes lung cancer. Now, I know that that’s a controversial claim, it shouldn’t be, because we have a bunch of authorities. You’ve got the EPA, the American Lung Association, the Minnesota Department of Health. I can’t remember what other authorities out there, but I mean, pretty much every authority, when it comes to health, agrees, radon causes lung cancer. That’s the reason you don’t want it in your house.
RS: Now, there’s other people out there who will say, “Well, these studies are all flawed, and there actually is no correlation. They did this wrong and that wrong.” And I don’t get into all of that. I’m gonna go with what all the authorities say, [chuckle] and I’m gonna assume that it causes lung cancer, and if someday I’m wrong about this. And it turns out that radon is not the silent killer that we all thought it was. Well, then in the end, we’ve put these systems in our houses that help to dry them out and make the air quality a little bit better, and we didn’t spend a ton of money on it. So I take the assumption that radon really does cause lung cancer. And Tess, you and I sat through a pretty interesting course taught by Joe Lstiburek. We livestream this for ASHI’s Inspection Conference, and he even talked about radon a little. And I wanna hear, what did you get out of that live stream? What was your takeaway?
TM: Oh my gosh… You know what? I don’t have my bullet points in front of me, Reuben.
RS: All right.
TM: I need to refresh my memory on this.
RS: Okay. We don’t rehearse before shows as listeners can obviously tell.
TM: Can you tell?
RS: [laughter] But what came to my mind was the action level here in the US. Our action level is 4.0. They say that when you have radon above four, that’s a good number at which you should do something, that’s for a short-term real estate test. Now they say, even if it’s above two, it’s a good idea to do something and get levels lower. But if it’s a short-term test, real estate, if it’s above four, somebody ought to do something about it. So that’s kind of the magic number that everybody works with. But then this is apparently based on, I’m gonna butcher this word, no, I’m not even gonna try it, on study, we’ll say it’s based on studies [laughter] on health effects for people, epidemiological studies. Is that the word I’m looking for? I don’t even know what that means. Nevermind. [chuckle]
TM: Sounds good enough to me.
RS: So it’s based on these studies they’ve done, but then you go to Canada and their action level is way higher. What is it like 16 or 20?
TM: Yeah, okay. It’s coming back to me now. Yes, that was mind blowing, where you’re going with this. Sorry to interrupt you, keep going.
RS: Okay. Tess, do you remember where we’re going with this? Why their action level is so much higher?
TM: Yes. He said that they did a bunch of studies. They tested all of the houses and they found out kind of what the average level is.
TM: And put the acceptable level higher than that so that the majority of houses would not be required to have to install radon mitigation systems. Is that correct?
RS: Yes, that is exactly it. It was not based on how it affects people. It’s based on the level that they have.
TM: That’s currently there.
RS: “Okay. Our average is 16. All right. If you’re above the average, you should fix it,” or something like that. It was just… It’s mind blowing. So all this time I’ve been hearing people say, “Well, the US is just messed up. We’ve got our levels way lower in Canada. I mean, they don’t even consider it a problem until it’s this number.” What’s the why behind it? That was fascinating.
TM: Now, if that’s true, that’s a little bit unsettling, I think. [laughter]
TM: But bottom line is different countries have different standards and different acceptable levels, but it is something that people are aware of more and more these days, I think. And partly due to, what was it like about 10 years ago? Real estate requirements… I’ll let you talk about this though Reuben, required homeowners to disclose if they tested for radon. Is that true?
RS: Yeah. That’s it. It’s the radon Disclosure Act, I believe. And we put this in a practice for all houses being sold in Minnesota where the seller needs to disclose it. If you test for radon, you at a high radon level, you need to let the buyers know. And there is a two page document that buyers need to sign, talking about the importance of testing for radon. So if you’re buying a house in Minnesota, it is going to be presented to you. And today for us at Structure Tech, somewhere around 50% of our home inspections include radon testing. So it’s big.
TM: Wow. Mm-hmm.
RS: We do a ton of that.
RS: Important to do. And getting back to the conspiracy theories, even if you think that radon doesn’t exist or it doesn’t cause lung cancer, you’re not gonna spend any time in the basement. But one of the biggest reasons to test that I’ve always said is that, this is a liability. If you’re buying a house and you have high levels of radon in your home, someday you’re gonna go to sell your house. The person who buys your house is probably gonna test for radon. And if they end up finding a higher radon level, they’re gonna ask you to fix it. And if you don’t fix it, well, you’ve gotta disclose it to the next person. And so, it’s probably gonna cost you a couple of thousand bucks to have a mitigation system put in. And why wouldn’t you just do that when you buy the house? Why would you wait until you sell it and then you end up living with this high level of radon that may or may not cause lung cancer. I say it does, but whatever it is why would you live with it the whole time?
TM: Yeah. Even with a changing market and tough buyer’s market, if you’re not negotiating the seller to put in a system, if it’s on you as the buyer to put it in, they’re still asking those questions. And if it does reveal the high radon, it’s like you make a good point. Why didn’t you just install it when you moved in so that you could reap the benefits of having lower radon?
TM: Yeah. It makes sense to do that. And what did you say, like, one out of every three houses we find here that we test in Minnesota that has high levels?
RS: About that. We say closer to about like two out of five, about 40% of the houses.
RS: And then, starting in 2009, Minnesota started requiring passive mitigation systems for all new construction houses, and for those houses, about one out of five, about 20% of those is gonna have an elevated level of radon. And if it does have an elevated level, it’s not that big of a deal to change a passive system into an active system. You just put a fan in, put a little indicator to show your fan’s working. Not much more than that. It’s pretty simple. And one other thing, I got a comment on my blog from somebody who said, “Hey, look, I was thinking about testing my house for radon but I know that I don’t have gravel underneath my basement slab and I know I don’t have a vapor barrier it’s just dirt. And so what I’ve heard is that it’s pretty much impossible to mitigate radon if that’s the case. So isn’t it just kind of a waste of time to even test?” And this all couldn’t be farther from the truth.
RS: Because on just about every radon system that’s put in after the fact, you’re not going to have gravel underneath the slab. You’re not gonna have a vapor barrier, you’re not gonna have any of that. Now, if you’re lucky, you may have drain tile and they might tie into the drain tile system. That’s a pipe that runs around the perimeter of the basement. But you don’t even need to have that. We had Jesse from American radon Systems on our podcast not too long ago, and he talked about how what a science this is, about how he’ll put holes in the slab at all these different places and test the suction and figure out the best places to put a pipe. And they will get really good suction underneath the slab to help make sure that that radon system is extremely effective. So it doesn’t matter what you have, it’s a good idea to test for it. And it can always be fixed.
TM: Yeah. You say always be fixed, and actually I think, I remember when I was doing inspections, like there were a few properties I inspected that were townhomes and they were attached and they were slab on grade. And I remember they actually did have high radon levels. It was a good thing we tested, because even slab on grade, you mentioned this in your blog, can have high radon levels. You’ve got a funny story about that too. Your own personal experience of telling someone they don’t need to test for it and then testing and it coming back high, right?
RS: Yeah. Oh, that was so embarrassing.
TM: Yeah, it happens. But we learned from those mistakes and now, we recommend everybody to test. But anyways, going back to that, this was… I remember, there was a slab on grade townhome, and I was like, “I have no clue where you can install a radon mitigation system in this house.” Like, the closet that held the utilities was full. And I just had no idea. And I was thinking like, “You need a radon mitigation system, but you’re gonna have to find someone who’s creative and really good at what they do, who can figure out how to install this system.” And they did. They found a contractor who figured out a way to install that system and pipe it out and reduce those levels. So it is, and there’s challenging houses too that have crawl spaces. You might need multiple suction points, multiple systems, but it is possible to do it.
TM: What’s the cost of a system these days? Do you know?
RS: I think, it’s around $2000, but I don’t know.
RS: I know that that’s more average. When we had Jesse Green on, for him, he typically charges closer to like $4000. His are a little bit more involved. But I think you get what you pay for too.
TM: I do too. And I know the costs are going up with all the licensing that’s required now, and if you’re pulling permits and you need to install electrical and all that stuff, it just adds up.
TM: But we used to quote people like 1500 bucks for a typical radon system, but I think it’s going up.
RS: Yeah. That was pre-COVID, right?
TM: Yeah. Pre-COVID prices.
TM: So it’s not relevant at all anymore.
RS: Yeah. Everything’s increased by 25%.
RS: Except our prices.
RS: We haven’t jacked our home inspection prices up. Hmm.
TM: What’s with that?
RS: What is with that? We’ll report back next week. We’ll see if we can get that fixed.
RS: Alright. Well, I think that’s about it for radon. Just wanted to hit some of those highlights. If you’re buying a house, it’s important to get radon testing done. If you already own a home it’s still important to get radon testing done. And you don’t need to hire a professional like us to test for radon, if you already are in the house. All you need to do is order one of those, do-it-yourself kits and you can test it yourself. As long as you’re comfortable following the directions, it’s a piece of cake. It doesn’t cost that much. It costs, like, what is it? They’re about 13 bucks or something.
TM: So Reuben, where can people go to buy these test kits?
RS: Go to mn.radon.com. Mn as in minnesota.radon.com. We will put a link to that in our show notes. Perfectly good way to test your house. And they got a good deal on these, what is it? Yeah, 1295 to order your test kit.
RS: So we’re encouraging everybody to test their own houses. All right.
RS: I think that’s a wrap. That’s it. Like I said, not a deep dive.
TM: But sounds good.
RS: Just wanted to hit some little highlights.
TM: Yeah, so parting words is, you don’t know if you’ve got radon unless you test for it. And we recommend that everybody tests for it. You never know. You could have a newer house, you could have a slab on grade house, and you could still have high radon. So the only way to know is test for it, you can do it yourself for fairly cheap, or you can hire a licensed professional to do a test as well. But especially if you’re in the process of buying a house, it’s a good idea to do it.
RS: Well put, Tessa.