The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that millions of American homes have unacceptably high levels of radon—a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is associated with lung cancer. Radon problems occur most frequently in areas where rocky soil is relatively rich in uranium and in climates where people keep their windows tightly shut to maintain heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. No area is immune, however—according to the EPA, high levels of radon have been detected in every state (see the EPA Map of Radon Zones for details). If you smoke and your house has high radon levels, your risk of developing lung cancer is especially high.
Radon is invisible and odorless, so it’s not always easy to know whether it’s present in your rental. Also, while states often require homeseller disclosures of radon hazards, only a few states have explicit laws regarding landlord radon disclosures or tenant education. These include Florida (Fla. Stat. Ann. §404.056) and Illinois (under the Illinois Radon Awareness Act, 420 Ill. Comp. Stat. § § 46/15. 46/25).
Here are some tips on how to determine if your rental home has a radon problem—and what to do about if it has.
Your first step should be to educate yourself about radon. The radon section of the EPA’s website has detailed information and resources to get you started, such as A Citizen’ Guide to Radon. The EPA also has a radon hotline, 800-SOSRADON (800-767-7236), to call with your specific radon questions.
Keep your landlord informed of your radon concerns right from the start, and refer him or her to EPA resources on radon for more information. Depending on your situation, your landlord may be willing to pay for a radon test kit or professional testing (discussed below). The Nolo website includes a sample letter to landlord requesting a radon test that you can use as a model in preparing your own letter. If you live in an apartment building, join with other tenants in expressing your concerns as a group.
If you perform a radon test on your own, send the landlord a certified letter with a copy of the report, and ask the landlord for help resolving the problem. The Nolo website also includes a sample letter to landlord regarding a known radon problem that you can use to draft your own letter.
Inexpensive do-it-yourself radon test kits are available to test the air in your rental unit. Kansas State University’s National Radon’s Program Services is one good source of discounted kits. Whatever radon test kit you use should say “Meets EPA Requirements.” Testing for radon takes at least three days, and sometimes months. Your state radon contact can provide more information, including (relevant if you want to hire a professional radon contractor), requirements for radon measurement and certification requirements. Also, see the EPA Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction for advice on reducing radon in your home (and make sure your landlord is aware of this publication).
Does it make sense to test for radon? It depends on where you live. You’re more likely to have a problem if your rental is in an area that is naturally rich in uranium soil and rock. The EPA map of radon zones is one place to start as well as other resources included in the radon section of the EPA website. City planning departments, insurance brokers (who may have experience in dealing with radon-related claims), architects familiar with the local geology, environmental engineers, and informed neighbors may be other useful sources of information.
If you find that radon is present in significant amounts, it needs to be kept out or blown out of the building. Good ventilation will disperse the gas in most situations. Solutions range from the obvious (open the windows) to the somewhat complex (use fans), but these methods should be temporary only. The only good long-term solution is keeping radon out by sealing cracks and other openings in the foundation. Another method is soil suction—sucking the radon out of the soil before it enters the foundation or basement, and venting it into the air above the roof through a pipe.
If radon is a major problem where you live, as documented by a certified tester, keeping it out of your rental is the landlord's responsibility. That's because a significant radon presence renders your rental "uninhabitable." By law in every state except Arkansas, landlords must offer and maintain habitable rentals. If a certified radon tester has concluded that levels are too high, you'll have all that you need to demand that the landlord take prompt steps to remedy the problem. See the Nolo article Tenant Options if Your Landlord Won’t Make Major Repairs for advice on the subject.
For a more detailed discussion of environmental health hazards in rental properties, see Nolo’s book Every Tenant’s Legal Guide (or, California Tenants’ Rights, if you rent property in California). Landlords should consult Every Landlord’s Legal Guide (Californians should see The California Landlord’s Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities).