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High Radon In Outside Air Ocala, FL

Radon: The ghost enemy

By LUCY TOBIAS Senior Staff Writer

You can't see it, smell it, taste it or hear it, but it has a name. Radon,
a radioactive gas, can cause lung cancer if inhaled in sufficient quantities
over time. Call it a ghost enemy.

Homes, offices, schools, the ground, air and water can all have radon. No person
put it there. You can't blame the Spaniards, the Seminole Indians, or the home
builder. Radon comes from the natural radioactive breakdown of uranium in soil,
rocks and water. It then is transmitted into the air you breathe. Greatest exposure
for humans is in homes, because that’s where most of our time is spent.

As a radioactive gas in the soil, radon rises into buildings through small
foundation openings. Four walls and a roof hold radon like smoke under glass.
And the experts say radon is not to be taken lightly.

"Because of the prevalence of lung cancer and its poor survival rates
(50 percent one year survival), even secondary causes of lung cancer (such as
radon) are very important. About 18,000 people die each year from residential
radon exposure," said Bill Field, cancer epidemiologist, College of Public
Health, University of Iowa. Field was the lead author of the Iowa Radon Lung
Cancer Study, released in 2000.

On the short list of environmental carcinogens affecting your lungs, smoking
comes first. Radon ranks number two. People who smoke and are exposed to radon
are in even greater cancer risk.

Marion County, along with eight other counties in Florida, are listed by the
Florida Department of Health as Zone 2, meaning a moderate potential for 2 to
4 pCi/L (pico Curies per liter) or more of radon. The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency’s action level for radon gas is 4 pCi/L. That number is equivalent
to smoking seven cigarettes per day.

"Alachua and Marion are areas that are known to have elevated levels of
radon," said Donald M. Phillips, environmental specialist in Tallahassee
with Florida’s Department of Health, Radon and Indoor Air Quality.

Opening windows is sometimes suggested as a radon cureall.

"Some people think you can ‘outsmart’ radon just by opening
your windows a few hours each day, although in Florida’s climate that’s
not very practical," said Jeanne Weaver, co-owner of JWW Home Inspections
in Ocala. JWW is the only Marion County business currently licensed by the state
to do radon testing.

"The truth is, radon is back in just a few hours anyway," Weaver
said. "In some cases, opening windows could enhance the problem, creating
a vacuum effect, drawing radon in."

In Marion County, the EPA lists almost all of the northeast, southeast and
southwest sections of Ocala in a red zone – meaning active radon controls
are recommended.

"We get lots of calls about radon," said Jim Padgett, environmental
specialist, Indoor Environmental Program, with the Marion County Health Department
in Ocala. "Marion County is one of the elevated counties for radon. Some
ZIP codes, like 34479, are a little higher. But radon is scattered. We don't
want to alarm anybody. You may have it and your neighbor not have it."

Finding the perfect home

In an ironic twist, the very beauty that defines Alachua and Marion counties
– rolling terrain, rich vegetation and woods, all feeding on mineral-rich
geologic formations – is the same beauty that contains radon, a Class
A carcinogenic.

We live on top of what geologists call the Ocala uplift, producing the Hawthorne
Formation. That happened millions of years ago, leaving behind mineral-rich
formations, like phosphate. Uranium is often found in conjunction with phosphate.
When uranium breaks down, radon gas is released.

When Bob and Kathy Mygrant and their son Danny, age 11, moved to Ocala from
Tampa in August of 2000, none of this was on their mind. They wanted to step
back from the rush of big city life and they loved the outdoor beauty. They
also found radon.

The Mygrants bought a home in Dove Hill, a northeast Ocala residential subdivision.

"I knew nothing about radon, but we knew to ask that the Realtor have
a radon test done (before closing)," Bob Mygrant recalled. The result was
5.8 pCi/L – mildly elevated. After talking with state radon officials,
and getting a written agreement from the seller that mitigation (fixing the
problem) would happen, they bought the house and moved in.

That was last August. Mitigation occurred, but failed. Tests showed indoor
radon levels were in the 40 pCi/L range. Outdoor levels were even higher. Before
long, state officials arrived.

"We were called in on it along with the Marion County Health Department,"
Phillips said. A meeting with Dove Hill homeowners took place last December.
A 48-hour test is a snapshot, a picture, while a year long test is a better
overview. A one-year test is presently going on in the Dove Hill area, as well
as surrounding areas as a control.

"Initially, with the first set of data in February, at certain periods
outdoors, levels were higher than normal," Phillips said. By correlating
radon readings (spikes in the early morning with no wind) with weather, Phillips
speculates elevated radon readings could be drought-related.

"The source of radon is normally covered with water," Phillips said.

And the Mygrants? They moved out, sued to get their money back, settled out
of court for the house cost, but did not recover $15,000 in legal fees. They
now own a home in the southwest part of the county, have their own radon monitor
that runs continuously and it registers below 4 pCi/L.

"I think the (Mygrant's are) to be commended for bringing this occurrence
to public notice," Field said.

Information is power

"We want to make sure potential buyers or homeowners know what radon is
and what it can do," Mygrant said. "What you don't know will hurt
you. If you understand the dangers, then you can make your own decisions."

State law requires radon testing in pubic and private schools, state-licensed
day care centers and 24-hour care facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals.
Testing is not required for residential homes. But a contract to buy a house
has a disclosure page with information that radon may exist.

"They receive disclosure sheets before they sign a contract," said
Sandy Sauer, president of the Ocala/Marion County Association of Realtors.

If a house has previously tested high for radon, the seller is required to
disclose the information.

"The buyer really needs to know any material fact that may affect value,"
Sauer said, adding that classes on radon have been offered to Realtors as part
of their continuing education.

Radon testing is optional, but termite testing is required to buy or sell a
house. Kathy Mygrant thinks that should change.

"Termites won't kill you, radon will," she said.

Radon testing, both short- and long-term, is the only way to find out if you
and your family are at risk in your own home.

"Homeowners should test their homes for radon gas," Field said. "Do-it-yourself
testing is fairly inexpensive and easy to perform. The average person living
in the United States receives over 50 percent of their average radiation exposure
from residential radon gas exposure."

Fixing the problem

The average cost to install radon-resistant features during new home construction
is $350 to $500, while the average cost to install radon-resistant features
in an existing home ranges from $800 to $2,500.

Radon-resistant features include a gas permeable layer, sealing and caulking,
vent pipes, plastic sheeting and venting fans.

State construction standards presently do not require putting radon-resistant
features into new construction, but the techniques will be included in the appendices
of the new Southern Building Code to be issued this September. Appendices are
information but not mandates.

The homebuyer, often from the Northeast where radon as a heath risk is common
knowledge, has to request these radon-resistant features.

"Typically we do it if someone has a concern," said David Craft,
president of the Marion County Homebuilders Association. "We have not had
a very large problem – not like Polk County with its phosphate."

Craft suggested mitigating a radon problem by opening a home’s windows.

Lucy Tobias is a Star-Banner columnist. She can be reached at Lucy.Tobias @starbanner.com
or (352) 867-4134.

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