A home for sale might have everything that a potential buyer wants, but if the home contains traces of radon gas and has no system in place to handle it, the deal can become more challenging, and in some cases, fall apart.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas formed by the natural decay of uranium, found in rock, soil and water. While radon in outdoor air poses a relatively low threat to human health, radon can enter homes from the surrounding soil and become a hazard inside buildings, according to the state Department of Public Health.
"Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers," said Allison Sullivan, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Public Health. "It's something we encourage all homeowners to test for."
Fairfield County, like most of Connecticut, is in a "high-potential zone" because of its geology, Sullivan said, adding her agency encourages builders of new homes to equip them with radon-mitigation systems that can be connected with a blower fan should radon be found in the newly completed house.
"You want to test in the occupied portion of the house. We encourage that radon testing be done in winter when your house is closed up," Sullivan said, adding the American Lung Association at 800-LUNGUSA, offers test kits for $12. The National Radon Program Services sells radon kits through http://sosradon.org/test-kits.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends homes with radon levels at 4.0 picocuries per liter or higher should be fixed. Smokers exposed to radon have a much higher risk for developing lung cancer, according to the health department.
A picocurie is a unit of measure for radiation. A curie (named after French physicist Marie Curie) is a way of measuring radioactive decay or disintegration.
John Swanson, an agent at Coldwell Banker in Trumbull, recently represented the buyer of a house in Monroe house that registered a picocurie level only slightly higher than the minimum standard, but the lending institution required a mitigation system be installed prior to approving the loan.
"It's easily fixable with a mitigation system. Virtually every seller will do a mitigation system. I've never had it be an issue," said Swanson, a real estate agent since 1987. "The seller is going to have to remedy the situation to sell a house. There are areas where it's more prevalent -- if you have ledge" rock around the home, for example.
Radon testing started to become popular in the 1990s, he said.
Most systems can be installed in one day and cost between $1,000 and $1,400, according to Matt Bednarz, vice president of Connecticut Basement Systems Radon in Stratford, whose business covers Fairfield County and bordering areas.
"Radon seems to be pretty prevalent in our soil in southwestern Connecticut. Probably one in four homes have an elevated level," Bednarz said, adding a typical mitigation system involves running a pipe from a small chamber under the basement floor to the outside where the radon is vented with the help of a fan. "You can't see it, taste it or smell it. A home inspection brings it to the forefront."
Those who opt not to have their homes tested for radon could be jeopardizing their family members' health, warned Dr. Jewel Mullen, state health commissioner.
"Because you can't see or smell radon, people are often unaware that this silent killer could be in their home," she said in prepared comments. "That's why testing for radon and reducing elevated levels is so important, and could save your life or the lives of your loved ones."
Paying for the mitigation process is a matter of negotiation between buyer and seller, said Jo Mineo, a real estate agent for 15 years, currently with Neumann Real Estate in Ridgefield.
But Mineo has seen first-hand how radon detected in a house can prevent a deal from being signed.
She recalled an incident about two years ago where the level of radon in a Ridgefield house made a potential buyer so insecure that he backed out of the deal. The cost of installing a mitigation system was estimated at more than $5,000, but Mineo said the potential buyer still was not convinced it would accomplish the task.
The house eventually was sold to another buyer.
Nothing to fear?
The cost of a mitigation system should not be a deal breaker for a buyer who wants a property, Mineo said.
"If you'd love to live there, just put in a system, but always get two estimates. Once you have a system, there shouldn't be anything to fear," she said.
Sometimes real estate agents have to rely on their wits and patience in assuring a potential buyer a mitigation system will solve a radon problem.
"Radon might scare people who don't know about it. Radon is something that can be corrected. You explain the options for remedying the situation," said Mona Beerman, a real estate agent with Halstead Property's office on Mason Street in Greenwich. "If you're writing an offer, write it into the contingency."
Indoor-air-quality publications can be obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Service Center for Environmental Publications. The website address is www.epa.gov/nscep, and the telephone number is 800-490-9198, weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. You can download a copy of the "EPA's Home Buyer's and Seller's Guide to Radon."