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Radon transforms dream home into a long nightmare


Radon transforms dream home into a long nightmare By Susan Green Copyright 1998 Tampa Tribune July 26, 1998


VALRICO - A family's home becomes an endless struggle with a developer over how to lower levels of the poisonous gas.

For Rebecca Jones, the house she fell for on Autumn Glen Drive is like Snow White's apple: enticing on the outside, poison on the inside.

"It's a beautiful street, and we loved this house," Jones says of her River Hills neighborhood.

That was before Jones - the mother of three young sons - saw the radon test results. Radon is an invisible, odorless, radioactive gas that in high concentrations has been linked to lung cancer in humans.

Test results during the past three years show the River Hills house Jones and her husband, Tim, bought in February 1997 consistently has recorded radon levels above federal safety standards, despite many efforts to pipe or blow the substance out.

Efforts during a four-month period last year also failed to rid the home of excess radon. Jones keeps the spacious, four-bedroom house sparsely furnished and decorated, waiting for the day she can move out.

She says she cries when she thinks of what breathing the gas may be doing to her children, ages 2, 6 and 7.

"We just live here and keep our windows cracked," she says.

The Joneses are suing River Hills' Arvida Co./JMB Partners in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. They say the builder fraudulently induced them to buy a home with chronic radon problems from a third party by promising to lower the levels to acceptable health standards, even though Arvida knew many previous attempts had failed.

Arvida deniesd any wrongdoing and insists the radon levels can be controlled.

Michael Gilley, who heads the Florida Department of Health's radon and indoor air quality program, has records showing at least six homes on Autumn Glen Drive have tested high for radon.

He couldn't say whether radon levels have been reduced in the other homes. But the state considers Valrico a trouble spot for radon, with about 30 percent of tested homes turning up radon amounts higher than state and federal standards. That's probably because of the area's proximity to phosphate-bearing territory, Gilley said.

High levels of residential radon aren't unusual in much of Central Florida. But Gilley said he knows of only a few homes in the state that couldn't be adapted at a reasonable cost - usually less than $ 2,500 - to meet safety standards.

John Baric, Arvida's general counsel, said in a July 20 written response to The Tampa Tribune that River Hills does not have a significant radon problem.

He does not answer questions about how many homes there have tested high for the gas or how many achieved acceptable levels. He did not return a follow-up call last week.

The Joneses' house was built in 1993. Rebecca Jones said neither the couple's Realtor nor real estate agents for the seller - a company that specializes in buying properties for resale - told the couple there was a history of radon problems at the house before the Joneses bought it, despite records dating to 1995.

A radon test ordered by the Joneses in early 1997 turned up high readings. But a home inspector chalked it up to a broken fan in an existing radon-reduction system, Jones said.

When the Joneses expressed concern about radon before closing on the home, Arvida offered a memorandum promising to get the levels to within federal safety standards, Rebecca Jones recalled.

After buying the $ 160,000 home, the couple discovered a previous owner had had the floor torn up and the slab sealed, among other measures, in an effort to reduce the radon buildup.

Jones said she became convinced the excess radon couldn't be removed after a consultant from the Florida Department of Health examined the house in January and suggested the fault lies in shoddy construction of the concrete slab.

The lawsuit contends Arvida knew there had been several failed attempts to lower radon levels to federally accepted standards and therefore knew it could not be done.

But the developer wanted to keep the information secret to keep selling homes in the subdivision, the lawsuit claims. Arvida, though not the seller of the home, promised to achieve a reading of less than 4 picocuries per liter, the radon-measurement standard declared acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the suit says.

Arvida still intends to do so, Baric said in a telephone interview July 17.

"We're not running away from this obligation," he said, noting that a July 1997 test showed results of 4.3 in one bedroom and 3.4 in the living room.

"We were almost there. We were within a whisker of doing it," Baric said. "We're still willing to go in there."

He said in a letter to the Tribune that the concrete slab criticized by the state consultant passed Hillsborough County building inspections. He said Arvida does not believe the slab is defective.

Baric said Arvida had to stop working on the problem because the Joneses refused to allow visits to the home after August, demanding instead that Arvida buy the home from them.

Rebecca Jones said she and her husband turned Arvida away only after filing suit last February, and the couple plans to comply with a judge's order this month to allow Arvida back into the home to perform testing.

But she questioned Arvida's July 1997 test results, saying the test was done on a weekend when the family had a party. Guests made a lot of trips through the front door, she said, allowing an unusually large amount of air circulation through the house.

After that test, she said, Arvida wanted to install another radon-removal stack, this time in her son's bedroom.

The home already had four stacks and an intake pipe blowing air into the house. Jones blames the constant flow of warm outside air into the home's cooling system for "blowing up" the air conditioner four times.

She and her husband worried that adding a fifth stack might hurt the home's resale value without being effective. They told Arvida they wanted their own expert to say whether another stack would cure the problem.

They called on Kaiss Al-Ahmady, then an environmental specialist with the state health department's Bureau of Environmental Toxicology and now a consultant to a Texas law firm, who tested the home in January.

In a recent telephone interview, Al-Ahmady confirmed his written opinion that poor construction of the house's concrete slab would make it very difficult to reduce the radon levels to federal standards without spending large amounts of money.

Concrete typically acts as a barrier to block radon rising into a home from the soil, Al-Ahmady said. But he believes workers who built the Joneses' home added too much water to the cement before pouring the slab or somehow made the concrete too porous.

"It's almost like building a house on bare soil," he said.

Rebecca Jones said she has filed complaints against the real estate agents involved in the purchase of her home because they did not disclose the history of radon problems.

The state's Division of Real Estate won't confirm or deny if there was a complaint, saying that only complaints that result in disciplinary action become public. Investigations can take six months or more.

Gilley, at the state health department, said sellers and real estate agents are required by state law to tell buyers of high radon levels if they know about them and if the buyer asks.

They also are required, he said, to give buyers a statement making them aware that radon exceeding state and federal guidelines has been found in buildings in Florida and may pose health risks.

"It's on there to prompt buyers to ask questions of the seller," Gilley said.

Baric said Arvida includes the required statement in every contract for home sales at River Hills.

(CHART) What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can be cancer-causing in sufficient concentrations breathed over time.

"It is a Class A carcinogen," says Michael Gilley at the Florida Department of Health.

"It is known to cause cancer in humans. It is not postulated." According to information distributed by the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, trailing only smoking. About 14,000 lung cancer deaths are attributed to radon annually.

Hillsborough and Polk counties were identified in the late 1970s as having a large number of homes with radon measuring above EPA standards.

Since then, Gilley said, the list of counties considered radon trouble spots has been expanded to include Alachua, Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, DeSoto, Duval, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Nassau, Putnam, Sarasota, Seminole, Sumter, Suwannee, Union and Volusia.

Gilley recommends that homeowners living in areas with known radon problems who have not had their homes tested for radon do so.

For information on buying a test kit or hiring a certified radon tester, call the state's Radon Gas Hotline at 1-800-543-8279.If the test results come back high, you can also call the number for a list of certified radon mitigators in your area.

People with Internet access can also get information about radon and its frequency in their ZIP code at www.state.fl.us/health/envtox/radon.htm.

Susan M. Green works in the Brandon office and may be reached at (813) 685-4581.

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