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First Alert Investigation: Many states require testing for cancer-causing gas found in many homes; Wisconsin doesn’t

At a time when we’re all spending more time at home, why aren’t more people testing for radon and taking action to prevent or get rid of it?
Published: Jan. 28, 2021 at 5:57 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Thousands of people die every year from cancer caused by a dangerous gas found in very high levels in many Northeast Wisconsin homes.

At a time when we’re all spending more time at home, why aren’t more people testing for radon and taking action to prevent or get rid of it?

It’s a question we started asking after our recent story on fire departments raising awareness to the dangers of radon.

January is Radon Action Month, and winter is the best time to test for the silent killer, but we discovered not many people do.

So why not?

Our First Alert Investigation found it may be because of state laws, or, in Wisconsin’s case, a lack of laws.

A problem in Northeast Wisconsin

A map of the U.S., created by the Environmental Protection Agency, shows high levels of radon detected across the country, with very large pockets in the Midwest.

Much of Wisconsin is either in the high level, where radon mitigation is necessary, or is approaching that danger level, where you should be monitoring radon exposure.

But as we talked with people for this story, we found many who’ve never heard much about radon, let alone tested for it.

Why not test?

The big reason? It may come down to rules and laws.

The Policy Surveillance Program at Temple University‘s Beasley School of Law tracked radon laws across the country.

That research found 22 states with some kind of radon testing law, including each state that borders the Badger state.

Wisconsin is not on that list.

A cancer-causing concern

“(Radon) is a cancer-causing radioactive gas. It’s found naturally in our environment, and it can get into your homes through the basement, sump pit area and other cracks and crevices,” explains Trista Groth, environmental health sanitarian for the City of De Pere Health Department.

Radon is just about everywhere in Wisconsin.

The state’s Department of Health Services says one in every 10 homes in our state has high radon levels.

An interactive map created by Wisconsin DHS allows you to search radon hot spots by ZIP Code.

There are many parts of Northeast Wisconsin in that high detection area, including Waupaca, Menasha, De Pere and Kewaunee, to name only a few.

“What it comes down to is how much uranium is in the bedrock in the soil underneath the house,” explains Andrew Stumbras, manager at A-1 Vacuum and Radon, a testing and mitigation company in Green Bay. “That’s what breaks down naturally and gives off the radon gas.”

THE EPA says prolonged exposure to the odorless, tasteless gas, invisible to the naked eye, is the number one cause of lung cancer for non-smokers.

It’s so dangerous, the American Lung Association recommends testing homes and schools for radon.

Health officials agree. But all they can do is encourage it.

“Unfortunately, right now, in Wisconsin, there is no law or regulation on a safe level,” says Groth.

“There is no requirement in place for schools to test,” adds Al Behnke, facilities director for the Howard-Suamico School District.

Radon tests in schools

We found messages on the EPA website boldly calling radon a ”serious threat to your school,” citing a nationwide survey estimating one in five schools has a room with high levels.

The Policy Surveillance Program found laws in 13 states requiring schools test for radon.

We wanted to know if schools in our area have tested for -- or found -- radon, but because there’s no law DHS officials tell us no such data is tracked.

We then requested information from several large school districts in our area. Four responded.

Green Bay says its facilities director is not aware of any radon testing the district has done.

Appleton says it has tested once at Classical, a charter school, and told us they do not have any radon mitigation systems in place as they don’t have elevated levels of radon in their buildings.

De Pere says it had every school building tested in 2009, with no high levels found.

Howard-Suamico tested in 1998, detecting no high levels, but a few months ago decided to do it again.

“What I decided to do is test three of our buildings. The buildings that we currently have tests in place for are Bay View (Middle School), Forest Glen (Elementary) and Meadowbrook (Elementary),” says Behnke.

He says law or not, it wasn’t a difficult choice to test.

“Quite honestly, to provide that reassurance to parents, to provide that reassurance to staff and community, that’s not a bad investment,” explains Behnke.

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Staying home more? Health officials urge radon testing

With more of us staying home more often amid the pandemic, even creating school or workspaces in basements, health experts argue a radon test has never been more important.

“If you spend a lot of time in your basement, which is the area where levels would be the highest, generally, then the longer you spend down there and the higher the levels, the higher your risk of getting lung cancer,” warns Groth.

Tests are cheap and easy.

Andrew Stumbras showed us how to do it. It took him 20 seconds.

He installs test kits for A-1 Radon and Vacuum in many homes up for sale, as well as apartment buildings and nursing homes.

The EPA says a level of 4 picocuries per liter or higher is dangerous.

“Once a month, we’ll see a level above 20,” says Stumbras. “It’s very common in this area. A little bit less than half the homes we test do come back high.”

If they do, mitigation systems are installed, including a pipe drilled through the basement floor and a fan that sucks radon out of the house.

Even though testing isn’t generally required in homes statewide, with the exception of some HUD rules, Stumbras says if homeowners do test and find high levels, they are required to disclose that when selling the home.

But with the real estate wars still underway, and people snatching up homes quickly, he’s seeing radon testing again dissipate.

“A lot of people are skipping the radon test during the real estate transaction, which is fine, as long as the buyers remember to test when they move in,” he adds.

Stumbras says mitigation systems in homes generally cost around $1,000.

Want a test? Need a contractor?

If you’d like to have your home tested, you can buy test kits from health departments or home improvement stores for varying prices, but usually around $10.00.

More information on testing can be found on the Wisconsin DHS website here.

De Pere residents can purchase radon test kits from the De Pere Health Department.

Short-term radon charcoal kits are available at both Brown County Health & Human Services Department-Public Health Division locations: The Sophie Beaumont Building, 111 N. Jefferson St., in Green Bay and the Duck Creek Center, 2198 Glendale Avenue, in Howard.

Radon kits can be purchased by Brown County residents for a $5.00 fee. There is a limit of one kit per household. However, if an elevated reading is obtained, one more purchased kit will be allowed before referring to a certified radon mitigation contractor. For more information, call the Brown County Public Health Division at (920) 448-6400 or visit the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website: www.lowradon.org.

The state has created a list of certified mitigation contractors, which you can find by clicking here.

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