Coming Soon to a Jurisdiction Near You—Mandatory Radon Testing?

Posted on October 3, 2016 by James B. Witkin

Starting October 1, 2016, Montgomery County, Maryland, requires that before a single family home is sold, it must be tested for radon.  The law applies both to existing homes and newly constructed homes being sold for the first time. The law permits either the seller or buyer to perform the test, but both parties must receive a copy of the results, and the test must be performed using a County-approved device. The law does not require that action be taken, or any remediation be performed, regardless of the test results.

Radon hasn’t been in the news much recently, so here’s the CliffsNotes summary: radon is a naturally occurring, odorless and colorless gas that results from the decay of certain radioactive soils and rocks, including uranium and radium.  Those substances are present in many areas of the country, including those that have never had a working uranium mine (such as Montgomery County, Maryland, which abuts Washington, DC). People exposed to high levels of radon are at a higher risk for lung cancer, especially if they also smoke. According to the National Cancer Institute’s website, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, and scientists estimate that 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year are related to radon.

Although the EPA has established guidance levels for radon--currently the agency suggests that people consider taking action if the level of radon in their home exceeds 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air--there are no enforceable federal radon law laws, and a quick review of state and local laws did not reveal any other jurisdictions that require testing or abatement.  Some laws do require disclosure if the seller of a home has knowledge of the presence of radon.  The Montgomery County mandatory testing law appears to be one of the first—if not the first--in the nation.

So why is Montgomery County a radon pioneer?  The County is affluent, its population  well educated, its politicians usually progressive, and as it is home to offices of agencies such as National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it has been generally been receptive to environmental concerns. While the County is classified by the EPA as being located in an area with the highest potential for radon (compared to the rest of the country), radon has not been much in the local news.

At the Federal level, in 2015, a number of federal agencies and some private groups (including the American Lung Association) launched the National Radon Action Plan, a long range strategy with the goal (among others) of mitigating 5 million high radon homes by 2020. Still, in the country as a whole, publicity and awareness about radon appears relatively low, compared to other environmental health issues, such as the public water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

So:  is the Montgomery County radon law a harbinger of things to come nationally, or it is an outlier?  Take a deep breath, then take a guess.