By SANDRA FLEISHMAN
HATEVER HAPPENED TO AMER-ica's concern about radon gas, the silent killer that environmental health experts say is lurking in our homes?
New toxins such as black mold may be getting all the hype, but radon has not gone away. And, unlike virtually any mold found in homes, radon is considered a proven killer by the nation's major health organizations.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the surgeon general and all major health organizations agree that radon causes 15,000 to 22,000 U.S. lung cancer deaths a year, second only to the 160,000 lung cancer deaths from smoking.
Radon testing has become almost a routine step in the home-sale process in some areas. But some agents say radon has gotten lost in the shuffle of the overheated housing market.
And environmental health experts acknowledge that most people who are not actively buying or selling a house have tuned out the radon problem.
Federal and state environmental health officials and public health activists say that public interest, which has ebbed and flowed with the headlines on radon for the past 18 years, remains elusive.
To help grab homeowners, the EPA recently launched its second annual National Radon Action Month. Public service ads have appeared on television and in some newspapers.
Those who test and install radon reduction equipment say much more needs to be done. They condemn the national policy of encouraging voluntary testing and mitigation as "impotent."
On the other hand, there are those who contend the EPA and others are exaggerating the risks and the need for widespread testing. These critics maintain that only smokers are at substantial risk and that the $6 billion or more needed to retrofit at-risk homes is an unwarranted expense.
The EPA says about 85 percent of those likely to die from radon-caused lung cancer would be smokers or former smokers, but it says their deaths and those of 3,000 nonsmokers from indoor radon gas can be easily and cheaply prevented.
Test kits generally cost $10 to $20, with the analysis done by mail. Typically, when a house is being sold, a buyer who wants a radon test will hire his own tester, at a cost of $75 to $150, and then the seller typically pays for repairs if the house flunks the test. Mitigation costs $800 to $2,500 and averages about $1,200.
About the culprit
Radon, a colorless, odorless but deadly radioactive gas, is the result of the natural decay of uranium, which is found in nearly all soils but is concentrated in certain strains of rock and soils.
It is a problem in 1 in 15 U.S. homes, the EPA said. These homes exceed recommended levels for making fixes that were set years ago and were based on what could be achieved at a reasonable cost.
Radon becomes a health concern when it seeps in through foundations, basement floors, cracks in walls and other openings and enters living areas, where it is inhaled. The fixes include venting the gas through the roof, preventing the gas from entering the home or adding fans.
Radon ranks as a "Class A carcinogen" and its link to lung cancer deaths, a connection first made in the mid-1980s and reconfirmed as recently as 1998 by the National Academy of Sciences.
Because of the classification, the EPA and others for years have encouraged Americans to test their homes and to reduce elevated levels.
The "action" level was set at 4 picocuries -- a picocurie is a trillionth of a curie, the standard measure of radioactivity -- of radon per liter of air, but the EPA now recommends that homeowners "consider" making repairs for anything above 2 picocuries to avoid most risks. Breathing 4 picocuries per liter for a year is the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day, experts say.
In 1998 Congress passed a law setting a national goal of reducing indoor radon to the average level found outside, which is about 0.4 picocuries per liter. The average level indoors, the EPA estimates, is 1.3 picocuries. The 0.4 picocurie goal is not considered technologically achievable yet.
Where critics stand
Those who have accused the EPA in the past of overreacting say their minds have not been changed.
Science writer and Rutgers political science professor Leonard Cole said recently that he stands by a book he wrote in 1993. It concluded that no study had found a "statistically significant relationship between illness and radon in homes."
"I am fully aware that unusually high levels of radon can pose a health risk, but not generally in the numbers of 4 picocuries or so," he said, adding that the action level should be "closer to 20 picocuries."
Cassandra Chrones Moore, a Cato Institute adjunct scholar and author of "Haunted Housing: How Toxic Scare Stories Are Spooking the Public Out of House and Home," also says she is still a nonbeliever.
She accuses the EPA of a "campaign of toxic terror" forcing scientists to "disprove a negative; they're saying that you can't prove that radon doesn't cause cancer" at 4 picocuries.
EPA officials and others say no one can question the estimates.
David Rowson, director of the EPA's Center for Healthy Buildings, said: "The data on radon is as solid as any data on an environmental health problem that is out there."
EPA officials caution that the agency's estimate that 1 in 15 homes have elevated levels may be on the low side. The radon control industry's experience, officials say, is that the problem occurs in 1 in 10 homes.
"It's always been a problem to convince people," said Jonathan Samet, chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Samet chaired the 1998 National Academy of Sciences review.
"The problem is you can't see it, you can't smell it, but people are telling you that it can kill you."
Jim DeKrafft, assistant director for Virginia's radiological health program, said: "People think of radon as something that happens naturally, so there's no need to make repairs. If they had a basement full of rattlesnakes they'd do something, but if it's a basement full of radon, they don't."
Because testing is relatively inexpensive, the EPA and other environmental health experts say Americans just should not take the risk of inaction. And the EPA warns that no level of radon is safe.
Among the myths that the EPA counters on its Web site is the notion that there is still a question about the link to cancer. The agency also spells out that radon can be a problem in all types of homes, including new ones, old ones, drafty ones, insulated ones, those with basements and those without basements. According to the agency, the factors that can make one house have a problem and not its neighbor include local geology, construction materials and how the home was built.
The EPA also offers "radon-resistant" techniques for new construction, drafted in 1993 as voluntary guidelines for builders in cooperation with the National Association of Home Builders.
Although Congress and state lawmakers have rejected most attempts to force builders to put mitigation equipment in new homes in "hot" areas, some jurisdictions are requiring it. The EPA says its measures could cost builders $350 to $500 per house.
The real estate industry has been "the driver" in motivating people to test and mitigate, the EPA says.
"Nearly 20 million homes have been tested, about 700,000 homes have been mitigated and about a million new homes have been built with radon-resistant features," Rowson said.
Those in the radon-testing and mitigation industry, however, say much more needs to be done to reach the American public.
In reaction to the EPA's public awareness campaign, the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, an industry group, slammed the EPA and the Housing and Urban Development Department for not doing more.
The group said 10 million homes in the U.S. have levels of radon that exceed the EPA's radon safety standard and that every year 75,000 at-risk homes are being built. Meanwhile, the group says only 75,000 homes were mitigated in 2002.
Federal policy "seems impotent," the association said, because the program is mostly voluntary and because recommendations to test and mitigate "are seemingly ignored by HUD, a key federal agency responsible for the nation's housing, and many state lawmakers."
The group seeks mandatory testing and mitigation for houses getting federally backed loans from the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department loans.
"In 2003, the question is no longer whether radon kills, or whether radon causes lung cancer, but how long policymakers and regulators are going to ignore the fact that radon is killing Americans in the very homes where we believe our families are safe," said Peter Hendrick, executive director of the association.