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Radon levels higher in North Dakota

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A home inspector in Jamestown says high radon levels are common.

Every home Darcy Herman, owner of First Choice Home Inspections, has tested has a radon level that is above what is considered a health risk. The high radon levels are found either in the basement or another part of the house, he said.

“I've only found one home in Jamestown that tested below 4 picocuries,” Herman said.

The average outdoor radon level is 0.4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. An indoor level of 2 pCi/L is a health risk and anything 4 pCi/L or higher is a health hazard.

“You will find levels of 5 (pCi/L) and higher in most basements, and the average of all the houses I tested is around 8.5 (pCi/L),” Herman said.

John Hanson of Jamestown Home Inspections said his own home tested at 11 pCi/L, which is now less than 1 pCi/L after mitigation. He said the highest radon level he measured in other Jamestown homes was around 48 pCi/L.

“That was because they had a crawl space that was just a dirt floor,” Hanson said.

North Dakota is considered a Zone 1 state, with all counties having a predicted average indoor radon level greater than 4 pCi/L, according to the EPA. The odorless, radioactive gas comes from decaying uranium that seeps out of the ground and is a health risk as a carcinogen when it accumulates inside buildings.

An estimated 21,000 deaths from lung cancer are attributed to radon annually, EPA states. Radon is also a suspected cause of other cancers, allergies and respiratory illness.

Janna Pastir, program director for the comprehensive cancer prevention and control program at the North Dakota Department of Health, said mandatory testing and local awareness is crucial to addressing the issue.

“North Dakota homes have a higher likelihood for high radon levels and it would take an act of legislation to make testing mandatory,” Pastir said.

Two out of three homes in North Dakota have a radon level of 4 pCi/L or higher, said Justin Otto, radon officer for the health department. The national average is 1 in 15 homes, he said.

“Any home (old or new) has the potential to test above 4 picocuries and the only way to know is to test,” Otto said. “The good news is that it can be fixed.”

Nate Rausch, Spiritwood Lake, said he ordered professional radon testing for a recent home purchase. The home was built in 2011 but still had a radon issue, he said.

“The foundation had no cracks and the seal was good,” Rausch said, “but the sump pump had no lid and radon was testing at around 20 (pCi/L).”

All it took was a proper sump-pump lid and a radon mitigation fan and vent from the hardware store, he said. The radon levels dropped to less than 1 pCi/L, he said.

Gary Klundt, Jamestown building inspector, said radon testing or mitigation is not required for a builder’s permit, but the office has plans on hand to install depressurization systems and for sealing and ventilating sump pits and drains.

“There are different ways of dealing with radon in the subgrades, from gravel and polyethylene to ventilating the basement below the grade and drain tile,” Klundt said.

Steve Austin, owner of Active Radon Management in Mandan, N.D., is a radon mitigation specialist who is certified by the state Department of Health. He said the major problem with radon is with sealing sump-pump systems.

“Everyone has them now with all the recent flooding,” Austin said.

Radon abatement can be as simple as a polyethylene sheet, he said. The costs range from under $100 to over $3,000 depending on the difficulty of access and leaks, whether a mitigation fan is needed and the distance of the fan from the roof.

Robin Iszler, unit administrator for Central Valley Health District, said free radon tests are available to pick up. After a 48-hour exposure the kit is mailed to the state Health Department and Central Valley Health staff can review the results with the homeowner.

“If the testing was done in the basement then we would ask how much time they spend in there,” Iszler said. “Is it is a place they live all the time or don’t use much at all?”

Free radon kits are also available from the Department of Health. Do-it-yourself radon mitigation videos can be seen at ndhealth.gov under radon.

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