WMBF Investigates: Lack of regulations, aging maps affect perception of radon risk in South Carolina
HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Radon is a colorless, odorless and radioactive gas that can only be detected by testing buildings.
Maps created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put most of South Carolina in a zone with the lowest risk for the gas, but the maps haven’t been updated in more than 20 years and were based on data from very few homes.
“There are many people who say, ‘Hey, I’ve heard of it, but I don’t really know what it is,’ or they say, ‘Yes, I know what it is,’ but they’ve never tested their house so that tells us they don’t really understand the risk,” said Henri Boyea, president of the southeast chapter of American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.
Radon is a naturally occurring carcinogen created by the decaying of uranium and radium in soil, rock and water. When the gas seeps out of the ground, it enters the air.
In the outdoor environment, the gas is mostly harmless. However, when radon enters buildings through cracks and openings, it can become trapped inside and accumulate to high levels.
These high levels can accumulate in any building, including homes, schools and workplaces.
Generally, the closer homes are to the rock in the soil, the more likely they are to have high levels of radon.
John Hart owns Ocean Breeze Home Inspections and conducts radon tests throughout the Grand Strand.
He said he runs into a lot of misconceptions from property owners who think because their home doesn’t have a basement or is built around sandy soil that they don’t need to worry about radon.
“Radon is in every county in the United States,” Hart said dispelling the misconceptions. “Radon is here.”
While radon is naturally present everywhere, it doesn’t mean every home is at risk.
The EPA estimates one in every 15 homes have levels that could be dangerous.
Radon causes 20,000 deaths a year, according to the EPA. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.
Dr. Hafez Hayek, a pulmonologist at Conway Medical Center, said the two types of radon exposure are occupational and residential.
He said a majority of radon-related lung cancer affects people who already smoke, but a small percent of cases can affect non-smokers.
“How radon works is it is a gas and it breaks down to a small radioactive element that you can breathe in and when we breath in, this small element it can attach to the lining of our cells lining the airwaves and it can damage the DNA and lead potentially to lung cancer,” Hayek said.
Despite these risks, both South Carolina and North Carolina have no laws mandating testing for the gas.
Almost half of the country does require testing, according to The Policy Surveillance Program.
Thirteen states go further and have laws requiring public buildings to be tested.
Only four states require schools to be tested, The Policy Surveillance Program says.
While South Carolina does not require schools to test for radon, it does provide free test kits to schools.
WMBF News reached out to school districts in Florence, Horry and Marion counties to find none of the districts tested for radon.
All districts also refused for WMBF News to conduct tests within their schools.
However, North Carolina and South Carolina do require radon be disclosed during real estate transactions.
However, Boyea said radon only needs to be disclosed if levels are high and the owner is aware of them.
That means you don’t have to test, and nothing says you have to fix the levels before selling; an owner just needs to make the buyer aware.
Radon is measured by picocuries per liter.
The EPA gauges radon risk on a scale of 1 to 4 pCi/L.
The average radon level is around 1.3 pCi/L.
At 4 pCi/L, the EPA strongly recommends property owners act to lower radon levels.
Boyea said while four doesn’t sound like a big deal, the health risks are serious at that level.
“If you are right at four and you spend an average amount of time, 8 to 10 hours in that environment, the radiation dosage would equate to approximately 200 chest X-rays per year,” Boyea said.
Radon levels can far exceed 4 pCi/L.
Boyea said he tested a house a man lived in for 12 years and results showed the home had 100 pCi/L of radon.
“He had a hacking cough every 20 seconds the whole time I was talking to him, which of course is the primary sign of lung cancer, and they had been in the house 12 years,” Boyea said, noting this case has always stuck with him.
First Alert, a company that sells home protection products, estimated 100 pCi/L creates a 44 percent chance of people developing lung cancer, whereas there is a .7 percent chance of developing lung cancer when levels are at 4 pCi/L.
Most of South Carolina falls in EPA’s third zone, where radon levels are predicted to be on average under 2 pCi/L.
However, that doesn’t mean radon levels are that low everywhere within the zone.
The agency states: “Homes with elevated levels of radon have been found in all three zones.”
Further investigation into the map revealed the data has not been updated since 1993 when it was first created.
The EPA recommends retesting a home every two years. Boyea explained this is because geological changes, weather patterns and construction can affect where radon comes out of the ground.
“Things change, we’re doing a lot of building, lot of road construction, you just don’t know what could have changed,” Hart said. “It’s just like flood zones, you know. An area that wasn’t a flood zone, we’ve done all this construction and now it’s a flood zone, same type of thing.”
The initial map also only sampled 1,089 homes throughout the state in 1990, according to an assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Within Horry County, only 48 homes were tested to establish the average radon level. Ten homes were used for Marion County and 15 in Georgetown County.
“There’s such a small number that’s been done, you’re only left guessing,” Hart said. “They have no idea really.”
South Carolina Department of Heath and Environmental Control (DHEC) also has a map that depicts low risk for counties along the coast. While the data used is more recent (through March 2018), the percent of homes tested is still very low.
DHEC’s map shows only 175 homes were tested in Horry County and fewer than 20 in Marion County.
The 1993 EPA Map of Radon Zones stated: “The map of radon zones should not be used to determine if individual homes in any given area need to be tested for radon.”
“You could be the only one in the neighborhood that does or does not have a radon issue,” Boyea explained. “You can’t really go by what the neighbors have or what the county has in general.”
The 1993 documents further stated: “Any home, school, or workplace may have a radon problem, regardless of whether it is new or old, well-sealed or drafty, or with or without a basement.”
Hart said he has seen streets where five houses in a row have high radon levels and other streets that have only one house in the middle with high levels.
Radon levels can vary within rooms of the same building as well.
“It’s a cause for concern, it’s not a cause for worry,” Boyea said. “It’s a naturally occurring thing. It’s here in the earth. We deal with it. We can control it. It is important to test. Every house should be tested, no matter where you live.”
While radon experts and the EPA can continue to recommend homes be tested, both Boyea and Hart think the Carolinas need to make radon testing a law for the risk to be realized.
“If everyone had to do it, they’d have a whole lot better picture of one, where the higher levels are and two, you’d have a better picture too of what your reality of if you need to have something done for your home and for your family, whereas right now, they really don’t have a clue,” Hart said. “Since it hasn’t been a law, people don’t test.”
South Carolina provides free tests that you can order by clicking here.
Charcoal test kits can be purchased at most home improvement stores for less than $20.
Hart said home tests are a good first step to evaluate the risk but professional testing will depict a more realistic picture of the risk.
Professional tests can range from a few hundred dollars, but Hart said mitigation and testing is cheaper than health bills down the line.
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