January 22, 2014 - Gary Szuch's testing indicates there's an invisible health hazard lurking in the Oxford Village home he rents and as a result, he believes there needs to be a local ordinance requiring landlords to address it.
"Obviously, I'm concerned about my family. I have young kids," he told the village council last week during public comment. "I would like to ask the council if they could address that."
Szuch, who lives near the intersection of Glaspie and Lakeville roads, began testing his basement in late December and discovered it has a very high level of radon gas.
Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the natural breakdown (i.e. radioactive decay) of radium and uranium in soil and rock.
"It's a shock," he told this reporter. "All I want is a safe house. I'm paying rent, so it should be safe to live in."
What is radon?
Found in homes all over the United States, radon cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. There are no warning symptoms to let a person know they're being exposed to the gas.
Radon moves up through the ground and enters homes via drains, cracks, holes and other openings in the foundation or walls.
Radon is a Class A carcinogen, meaning it's known to cause cancer in humans. It's ranked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as one of the most serious environmental health problems out there.
According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and results in approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. each year. In Michigan, it results in approximately 600 lung cancer deaths annually.
The risk is determined by factors such as the level of radon in a home, the amount of time spent indoors and whether a person is a smoker or ex-smoker.
"As a general rule, the higher the radon level and the longer the exposure, the greater the risk," according to the MDEQ website.
Although there is no safe radon level, the EPA guideline is that a home's level should be less than 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L).
A picocurie is a unit of measure for radiation named after French physicist Marie Curie.
When levels are at 4 pCi/L or higher, the EPA advises action should be taken to reduce them. Nearly one out of every 15 homes in the U.S. and about 12 percent of Michigan homes are estimated to have an elevated radon level of 4 pCi/L or more, according to the EPA and MDEQ.
Because a radon level below 4 pCi/L still poses a risk, the EPA recommends homeowners consider employing a fix when it's between 2 and 4 pCi/L.
Szuch's high radon levels
Szuch installed a plug-in radon detector in his basement and discovered a radon level that fluctuates between 18 and 19 pCi/L.
To put that in perspective, according to the EPA, exposure to a radon level of 20 pCi/L over a lifetime could result in about 36 out of 1,000 people who have never smoked getting lung cancer. That number increases to about 260 out 1,000 if they're smokers.
The high level of radon he measured has Szuch greatly concerned for the health and safety of his wife and two young children. He informed his landlord of the situation and is waiting to hear back.
Lowering radon levels can be a costly process. Radon mitigation systems cost between $600 and $1,500 in Michigan, according to Les Smith III, MDEQ indoor radon specialist.
"They're very effective at getting the radon levels down to close to, if not under, 2 pCi/L," Smith said. "There's some things that can be done to reduce radon levels short of installing a system, but sometimes a radon mitigation system is needed to help get those radon levels down closer to 2 pCi/L.
"Sealing and calking can help in the short term, but you're not going to get every crack, you're not going to get every opening in that foundation. So, that's where a radon mitigation system will be very effective at reducing those levels even further."
Szuch doesn't believe it's unreasonable for tenants to expect their landlords to fix radon problems.
"All I'm asking for is safe air in the house for my family," he said. "It's not a preference. It's a necessity. It's like plumbing or electrical. (High radon levels) should be mitigated so the air is safe. It's not like I want an extra set of cupboards or marble countertops."
There ought to be a law
Szuch hopes the village council, or some other government entity such as the county, will enact an ordinance that addresses a landlord's responsibilities when it comes to dealing with radon issues.
"I just don't understand why the landlords in the area aren't required by (local) ordinance, or by the county, to mitigate the home to make sure it's safe," he said. "I really don't understand that."
"Everybody agrees it's a serious matter," but Szuch said if a landlord does not agree to fix the problem, he's found nothing on the books to compel him to do so.
"Even if I wanted to or could pay for the mitigation myself, I would have to get the landlord's approval. He may or may not want to give it," he noted.
State law, specifically the Michigan Sellers Disclosure Act, requires sellers to report knowledge of radon problems in a home being sold. But this law does not apply to landlords renting to tenants.
"There aren't any laws here in Michigan specific to landlord-tenant relationships specific to radon," Smith said. "There are no state laws governing this."
The state encourages a voluntary, cooperative relationship between tenants and landlords to resolve radon issues.
"If a tenant tests their property, they're encouraged to share those test results with the land owner because it's really the landlord's responsibility to fix and not the tenant's," Smith explained. "The landlord is also encouraged to conduct follow-up testing to confirm the test results that have been obtained by the tenant. The landlord is encouraged to get the radon levels reduced as would any homeowner (be) that tests and finds out that their radon levels are elevated."
Whether or not it works out this way depends on the individuals involved.
"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," said Smith, who noted it all boils down to "the willingness to do the right thing without being compelled to do it."
Tenants cannot take it upon themselves to mitigate elevated radon levels.
"Tenants are at a little bit of a disadvantage because they're not allowed to, (under) their lease agreements, make changes," Smith said. "Putting in a mitigation system is a structural addition or a change."
There are some federal programs that could be used by landlords to help fund radon reduction in rental housing that is affordable to low-income families, according to the Environmental Law Institute. They include the Community Development Block Grant program, the 203k program and Environmental Justice Grants.
Smith noted that if a landlord finds there are elevated radon levels in his rental property and he ever decides to sell it, he would then be required to disclose that to potential buyers, particularly "if the landlord did not address the issue."
However, there's no legal requirement for the landlord to disclose this information to future tenants.
"Should he disclose it to the next tenant? Yes, he should," Smith said.
Szuch believes there should be some legal requirement that covers rental properties.
"If the EPA, the federal government, says it's not safe, why isn't the (municipality) or the county or state saying if you're going to collect rent on this home from these people, then you need to make sure it's safe and habitable?" he said.
Smith noted having elevated radon levels doesn't mean a home is uninhabitable; it just means there's a problem that needs to be fixed.
"I would never tell anybody they can't live in a house because of radon levels," he said. "You can (live there), (but) there's things you need to do get the radon levels reduced."
Oxford Village attorney Bob Davis believes it's better for radon issues between a tenant and landlord to be handled civilly as opposed to through a municipal ordinance.
"(Radon) doesn't create a situation where you can't live in the premises, but it is something that you can get mitigated through the lease agreement between the parties," he said.
Dealing with radon issues at the state or county level is one thing, but to handle them via a local ordinance, Davis does not believe that's "the right fit."
"It raises the question of who would be the inspecting entity and what would be the enforcement and/or the penalty for not complying," he said. "Those are questions that would have to answered first."
Radon testing and mitigation would require a level of expertise that the village doesn't possess, so it would have to employ outside experts to enforce such an ordinance, according to Davis.
Close to home
Szuch said he wasn't aware of the home's radon problem when his family moved there in June 2013. The only reason he tested for it was because during a Christmas party, a Lake Orion resident told him there were high levels of radon in this area.
Tony Drautz, administrator of Environmental Health Services for the Oakland County Health Division, said his agency has no information regarding local levels.
"We don't keep data," he said. "When we send these (radon) tests off, we don't see the actual results. We sell the kits and then the resident gets those results."
Drautz indicated he's not aware of any data that offers a breakdown of radon levels by municipality.
The EPA has a map of radon zones in Michigan (see left) and it's broken down by county. Oakland County is classified as Zone 2 (orange), which means there's "moderate potential" for elevated radon levels in homes.
Zone 2 counties have a predicted average indoor radon screening level between 2 and 4 pCi/L. Zone 1 (red) counties have the "highest potential" and a predicted average indoor radon screening level greater than 4 pCi/L.
Zone 3 (yellow) counties have a "low potential" and a predicted average indoor radon screening level less than 2 pCi/L.
However, the MDEQ advises people that elevated levels of radon have been found in all three zones, so homes should be tested regardless of geographic location.
Also, the presence of radon can vary greatly from home to home, so just because one home has a high or low level doesn't mean a home next to it will be the same. The only way to determine if a home has a radon problem is to test it.
Testing and prevention
The county Health Division sells radon test kits at its offices in Pontiac (1200 N. Telegraph Rd., Building 34E) and Southfield (27725 Greenfield Rd.).
These test kits are normally $10 each, but during January, which is National Radon Action Month, the county sells them for $5.
"For $5, it wouldn't hurt to (test) annually," Drautz said.
Drautz said "now is the best time" to test because homes are sealed and windows are closed due to the cold weather. This allows homeowners to get the most accurate results.
The county advises that homeowners can help limit or prevent the accumulation of radon gas by sealing cracks in the foundation and basement floor, and by sealing around utility pipes and any gaps between walls and floors or ceilings. Covering exposed earth in crawl spaces and placing covers over drains and sump drains can help as well.
People who have questions about radon, testing or mitigation are encouraged to call the state's radon hotline at 1-800-723-6642.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.