Buying or renting a house or apartment for the first time is often supposed to be one of the most exciting times in your life. Unfortunately, many first time buyers and renters may not be aware of one of the biggest hurdles in the way of a good home and that’s toxins. Potential hazards continue to grow by the day it almost seems and the importance of a home inspector continues to grow.
Being aware and educated on some of the most common household toxins is of major importance to a new buyer. Without any knowledge of problems and the proper inspection services, families may be backing themselves into an unfortunate situation with a new house that has a ton of problems.
Mold is something that many of us are familiar with, but can sometimes slip the mind when looking for a new home. High levels of mold around a home can end up impairing health and having a slow but large effect on people. While the affect that mold can have on health is sometimes in question, there’s no doubt that it should be kept out of houses.
Radon is a household toxin that is continuing to become even more prevalent these days. Many buyers may be unaware of this problem because it is a silent gas. Radon is a gas that can’t be seen, tasted, or smelled at all, but it remains a major risk to houses. It occurs from a breakdown of uranium in water and soil. It then has the possibility of getting into the air you breathe. Radon’s presence in houses often occurs from seeping through cracks in insulation coming up from the ground, often in basements and first level areas.
Asbestos insulation is another thing that can go over the head of a buyer because it’s behind the walls of a home. Asbestos fiber was highly used as an insulation material heavily throughout the mid to late 1900’s in homes and structures. Unfortunately, asbestos exposure was then heavily tied to cases of a dangerous cancer known as mesothelioma. Although this material is banned in most of the country, it’s still being used in the insulation for many older homes.
These are just a few of the invisible toxins that can affect the quality of the home buying process, but they clearly show the importance of being aware. The growing amount of toxins being found only continues to prove that a professional, stringent home inspector can often be the difference between buying the right home and the wrong home.
BONSAI Inspection Company would like to thank Kristy Dawson [firstname.lastname@example.org] for authoring this article. Kristy is a recent college graduate and health and safety advocate. She is an aspiring writer and use my articles to spread awareness of such issues as chronic illnesses and cancer.
This is part two of my little 'mini-series' on the differences between the two most common real estate transaction radon gas testing methods. In part I, I addressed the primary similarity, that being accuracy. In this blog installment, I'll be sticking to differences. I'd like to cover a few pros and cons of each.
Cost - Advantage: Vial test
Most good quality kits cost the average inspector $20-$30. I can usually whittle the client cost down to the $50-$75 range. The machine test however, requires two trips or one (paid by me) trip for an assistant to pick up. Factoring in the machine's cost (upwards of $600) and the 'tie up' time, and you've looking at a typical $100-$150 per test.
Speed - Advantage: Machine test
We all know time is king in this business. Assuming a minimum 48-hour test interval, for the vial test results the typical turnaround is 5-7 business days from the start of placement. The machine? Wait 48 hours, show up, push button, done.
Simplicity - Advantage: Vial test
Don't discount simplicity as a potentially significant advantage. The vials require no calibration, don't care if the power is off or turned off, have no cords, don't need a back-up battery, and have no moving parts or 'down time'. If it 'can' go wrong with an electronic device, at some (most likely inopportune) time, it will.
"Tamper-proof" - ness - Advantage: Machine test
While no test is 100% tamper-proof, the machine test can be close. I have added temperature and relative humidity monitoring to my system to make testing virtually fool-proof. The vials require a small leap of faith that tampering has not occurred, however the test is not as easily fooled as it may seem.
So, like most other things in life, we see that there are plusses and minuses to the majority of A vs. B choices we are faced with every day. In the end, it all boils down to each individual clients specific needs and finances. As long as accuracy remains the same, no test method presents a clear advantage over the other.
I hope this little 'mini-series' on radon testing has shed a little light on this rapidly developing aspect of the real estate industry.
Over my 10+ years as a Massachusetts Home Inspector, I (like many others in my profession) have seen a huge increase in the percentage of well-informed clients that are requesting radon gas testing as an additional service along with their home inspection. Several months ago I added continuous radon monitoring (CRM) - also loosely known as "the machine test" to my service arsenal, while continuing to offer the more economical liquid scintillation test - aka "the two small plastic vials".
I routinely get quizzical questions from clients ranging from ‘what is radon' , ‘why should I test for radon', ‘what's the difference between the two methods' , and my favorite - ‘why should I pay you when I can do it myself?' So, I thought I was time to devote a couple of blog installments on this rather important and somewhat mysterious subject. Here goes:
One common misconception about the two test methods is that the ‘machine test' is more accurate than the ‘vial test'. The bottom line is there is no difference in accuracy. Doesn't it make simple common sense just based on all of the potential implications? Think about it. The USEPA maintains strict protocols for placement and QA/QC for both types of devices. Upon close examination you'd find that for the most part, the protocols are nearly identical! So don't get sold into paying more based solely for accuracy - it simply isn't there. Analytical Organizations that provide vial test kits for testing must remain in compliance with the USEPA's strict QA/QC protocols in order for their devices to retain their product certifications. The same goes for Home Inspectors and the like providing continuous radon monitoring services.
Another common misconception is that there is some sort of ‘magic formula' for making a pre-determination about a property without actually testing for radon - there isn't. Brand new homes, old homes, stone foundations, concrete foundations, etc. - none are immune. No one in the neighborhood has radon? No matter - soil concentrations of radon can vary as much as 300 times over as little as 30ft of distance. The bottom line is that radon gas testing is the only way to make an accurate determination. I've had many an unsuspecting property and/or property owner be surprised by significantly elevated radon gas levels.
Which leads me to my final point: Accurate determinations require accurate testing. Yes, the average handyman can easily purchase the $30 hardware store kit. The truly difficult part comes with correctly following the placement protocols and the interpretation of the results. The average hardware store kit instructions at best fill up a few paragraphs on a single page - the USEPA's Protocol for ‘vial kits' takes up an entire page and half just for device placement! A lot of this critical information simply isn't on the average hardware store kit instructions! I've stumbled across many an incorrectly setup hardware kit over the past 10 years - and in almost all of those cases, those placement mistakes were almost certain to induce false negatives. Why risk it for another handful of dollars? Have a professional place your radon test kit.
In part II, I'll cover some of the pros and cons for each testing method. See you then...
As many of you may be aware, the current ‘mania of the month’ is “Are my granite countertops emitting Radon”. I must admit, the first time I had a customer call me with this question, I was torn between “that’s crazy” and “hey, that could be possible”.
Not much to my surprise, I have discovered that in many cases the origins of these concerns are advertisements by manufacturers of competing materials!!
Levels of radon gas from granite-based products, while technically measurable, are in fact fractional values of established thresholds for environmental safety. So, with that being said……….
THE BIG QUESTION: Is radon in granite countertops dangerous?
There are two ways in which countertops made of granite might emit any level of radiation. The first is by release of tiny amounts of Radon,which can be breathed in; the second is by direct radiation from the surface itself to the homeowner. In both cases, the radiation emitted is from the same process, but the end result is the same: compared to other radiation sources in the home and outside, the risk to the home-owner from radioactivity emitted from a granite countertop is practically non-existent. The amount of radon gas emitted by a granite countertop is less than one millionth of that already present in household air from other sources! ONE-MILLIONTH! 1
Q: How much radon is given off by a granite countertop, and how does this compare with other household materials?
A: For an average countertop, the concentration of radon that is given off by the countertop into household air is 0.00000074 pCi/L, an amount that is 270,000 times less than the level of radon in outside air! The maximum contact radiation level that you would receive over one year if you were to sit on countertop all the time would be about one quarter of the annual radiation dose you already receive from all sources. Even If you were just a few inches away from the granite, then the dose would be immeasurable!! 1
Q: What about food that is prepared directly on the granite surface? Is there a chance that it could absorb radioactive energy, which would later be ingested by those eating the food?
A: The only way that radioactive elements such as uranium can get into the food is if they became dissolved in water and absorbed by the food. However, granite is one of the most insoluble materials known to mankind and the amount that could be dissolved is minute in comparison to the radioactive elements that are already in the food! 1
As an inspector, I always recommend that you have your property tested for radon by a qualified specialist who uses an EPA-approved testing method and certified laboratory. Spare yourself and/or your customers the expense of additional testing over fear of radon emissions from your granite countertops…!
1 – “The Truth About Granite & Radon/Radiation” – Marble Institute of America (http://www.marble-institute.com), Vol. IV, Issue I, March 2007
Mike Ciavattieri is a Massachusetts Home Inspector and owner of BONSAI Inspection Company, of Abington, MA