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Fire victims should build radon out

Jeff Miner

As Angora fire victims get ready to rebuild their lives and their homes, and as environmental agencies worry about the damage the fire will surely cause to our Lake Tahoe environment, we need to consider another risk: the damage the environment is doing to people who make Lake Tahoe our home. This damage is in the form of radon. Radon is dangerous; it kills 21,000 people a year from lung cancer. And we have high amounts of radon in the Tahoe Basin. In fact, Tahoe can officially be classified as a Tier One – high radon area, now that the 2007 Tahoe Radon Survey has been completed. George Faggella, the California Department of Health Services (DHS) radon officer, defines a high radon area as one having more than 20 percent of homes above the EPA action level of 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter).

In January of this year, he surveyed 1,700 residents in the tri-county (El Dorado, Placer and Nevada) area of the Tahoe Basin and found that over 50 percent of the houses in the nine ZIP codes of South Lake Tahoe were above the EPA action level, meaning they should be fixed. In the 25 ZIP codes of the surrounding mountain and foothill communities of the Sierra Nevada from Truckee to Placerville, the data shows 38 percent are over the EPA action level.

To check the figures yourself, the test data is on the California DHS radon test data base for all ZIP codes in California http://www.dhs.ca.gov/radon/default.htm. To make it easier to read, I have compiled the relevant data for our region on a spreadsheet and chart (www.jeffminerconsulting.com/radon/sierra-compare-8.23.07.xls).

So, if Tahoe is such a high radon area, and radon is dangerous, why don’t we know more about it? That’s a good question that could be asked of the California Department of Health Services and of our own El Dorado County Environmental Health Department. And why don’t we have building codes in place in our city and county building departments so the 250 Angora fire homes are rebuilt using RRNC (radon-resistant new construction) techniques? Let’s start with the basics.

What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is common to all soil types but has higher concentrations in granite soils. It forms from the radioactive breakdown of uranium and radium, and since it is a gas it can migrate up through the soil, especially decomposed granite and gravel soils, to get trapped in our houses in high concentrations. Radon breaks down further into radon decay products that can get trapped in our lungs and cause lung cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind cigarette smoke. The U.S. Surgeon General has issued a cancer warning for radon, similar to the one on cigarette packs.

How long has it been here?

Ever since the Sierra Nevada Batholith tilted up 25 million years ago forming the Sierra Nevada mountains, this has been a high radon area. But since California is a very low radon state with only 1 percent of the houses above the EPA action level, and since not that many people live in the mountains, as compared to the cities, my guess is that fixing it never became a priority. The first study I am aware of was in 1991 when the California Department of Health Services conducted a state-wide radon survey and found that the Sierra Nevada mountains had the highest concentration of radon of any area in the state. The report stated “The limited data for this region in the statewide survey indicated 11 to 45 percent of homes are above the U.S. EPA action level.”

A similar state-wide study was conducted about the same time in Nevada and found that 69 percent of the houses in Zephyr Cove were over the EPA action level, the highest of any city in Nevada. Still, not much was done to inform residents of the danger or to implement building codes to correct the problem. Hopefully this sad state of affairs is about to be corrected.

How do we fix it?

For those who want to test and fix their existing homes, there is information on the radon Web sites for California (www.dhs.ca.gov/radon/default.htm) and for Nevada (http://health2k.state.nv.us/ BHPS/rhs/) and on my Web site (www.RadonAtTahoe.com). But my purpose here is to get the 250 Angora fire homes rebuilt with radon-resistant new construction (RRNC) – which is easier and cheaper to do when building a new home than when fixing an existing one.

The State of California building code has a provision for communities to adopt a building ordinance to meet local needs and conditions, even if it is not in the state building code. Since California is a low-radon state, there is little chance a radon section would get added to the building code for the state, but such a radon code exists in the International Residential Code, Appendix F: Radon Control Methods. Other communities and even entire states have simply adopted Appendix F into their building code as an ordinance, and we could do the same. The IRC Appendix F is short, simple to understand, and meets RRNC requirements. Minnesota, the only state that has adopted it for the entire state, noted one shortcoming for Appendix F: It lacks clauses to require testing after the passive system is installed and to require the addition of an active system if the tests are above the EPA action level. With the addition of clauses, El Dorado County could easily adopt Appendix F of the IRC to the local building codes for South Lake Tahoe and the El Dorado County portions of the Tahoe Basin.

If this were done, Angora fire victims would use radon-resistant new construction techniques when they rebuild their homes and for many, the cost would be paid for by the insurance companies under the “code upgrade” provision of their policy. Paid for or not, the modest cost of using RRNC to avoid lung cancer is worth it. Contractors would learn valuable lessons adapting their building skills to radon resistant construction methods. But the real benefit would be that 250 new homes in a high radon area would be built to keep radon out and it would stand as an example for the rest of us.

This is our opportunity to start building radon-safe houses in this high radon area. You can help by letting your city councilmember and your County Board of Supervisor representative know that you support radon- resistant new construction for the Angora fire victims. A phone call of encouragement to the Environmental Health Department would help to get the ordinance written. To find out more about radon in this area visit http://www.RadonAtTahoe.com.

– Jeff Miner, a South Shore resident, runs http://www.RadonAtTahoe.com.


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