Lawmakers in at least three states are combatting what public health experts call the “silent killer” — radon, an invisible, odorless gas that that seeps into buildings through cracked walls and foundations.
Bills filed in Iowa and Nebraska, and a proposal taking shape in Utah aim to reduce people's exposure to the gas, the second-leading cause of lung cancer behind tobacco. Radon kills about 21,000 people each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The state efforts come as health advocates push to bolster a patchwork of randon laws they say has raised public awareness but still comes up short, and as states fear federal help will face the budget axe.
“We've got to get smart about this preventable problem,” says Matt McCoy, an Iowa state senator. “Our hope is that more people will become aware of it and start testing.”
Last week, McCoy introduced a bill that would require testing in all schools, something few states require. It is similar to legislation introduced in the U.S. House by Bruce Braley of Iowa. That proposal is backed by the American Cancer Society.
Compared to other states, Iowans face the highest risk for exposure to radon, which is released as bits of uranium decay in the soil. About 70 percent homes in the state — including McCoy's — register levels above the threshold the EPA considers most dangerous, 4 picocuries per liter. The Democrat says his house recorded average readings of 11.75, and that he will soon install a mitigation system.
Under his legislation, schools that twice test at or above 4.0 would be required to mitigate. That could involve simply tweaking ventilation, or installing a radon remediation system that could cost between $3,000 and $20,000.
Currently, some schools voluntarily test, but many don't. Health advocates expect some administrators fear they will be pressured to spend money following positive tests. To ease that burden, McCoy proposes to set up a $1 million matching grant program.
Rick Welke, who heads Iowa's radon program, says added testing and mitigation is a good thing, but schools could face issues finding contractors who can install the complicated systems they would require. Though Iowa has plenty of qualified contractors for homes, he says, few “really know what they're doing,” when it comes to large buildings. Also, he says, schools might struggle to meet deadlines in the legislation, because accurately testing those buildings takes extra time.
Across the border, Nebraska Senator Bob Krist has proposed legislation that would require all new construction to be radon resistant, in an attempt to reverse a trend across the country that worries radon experts: the rate of new, unprotected homes being built is outpacing those that are treated.
“It's time to take this issue head on and deal with it in our homes. And the best way to start is with new residential construction,” Krist told KWBE Radio.
Though Nebraska's radon problem is less severe than Iowa's, it still has plenty of danger spots, particularly near its border with Iowa. Under Krist's legislation, Nebraska would join seven states that have enacted similar requirements — most recently Illinois, which passed legislation last year. Realtors typically lobby against such measures.
Meanwhile, in Utah, which has no radon rules at all, a lawmaker is developing a wide-ranging proposal to encourage mitigation, according to KSL.com in Salt Lake City.
As those efforts unfold in legislatures, states are monitoring Washington, hoping that a small EPA program that grants money for testing and awareness campaigns survives the budget debate. That $8 million is guaranteed through September. If it is cut, radon efforts in some states could vanish completely, state officials say.