If you rent an apartment or house, you should hear from your landlord by the end of March about the results of a radon test for the air in your home.
But don’t hold your breath.
A state law first passed in 2009 requires the air, and the water if from private wells, in all residential rental buildings to be tested for radon – the colorless, odorless gas that is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. The law originally required the testing to be completed by 2012, but a change in 2011 pushed the deadline back to March 1 of this year. The law was amended further last year to ease mitigation requirements.
It’s clear, however, that many landlords and property owners waited until the last couple of months to conduct the tests, according to the head of the state radon program and testers and laboratories registered with the state. Others still might not be aware of the requirement.
“We’re getting 30, 40, 50 calls a day and an equal number of emails every day from landlords and building managers,” said Bob Stilwell, the radon section leader of the radiation control program in the Division of Environmental Health.
Before the law was amended last legislative session, only around 10 percent of the rental units in the state had been tested for radon, Stilwell said.
He expects that number to climb significantly once the division, which is under the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, receives the numbers for January.
Interviews with people in charge of testing and analyzing radon indicate the influx of property owners and managers requesting tests for rental units began last month and probably will continue through the March 1 deadline. Stilwell said he’s heard from many landlords that they won’t be finished testing until after the deadline because of backlogs with the registered testers.
“There seems to be a lot of folks out there trying to do the right thing, so I don’t expect to see huge number(s) of noncompliance,” Stilwell said. “Maybe I’m just being optimistic, but there are tons of people asking about getting it done right now.”
RENTERS MUST GET RESULTS
Landlords or their representatives are required to notify current tenants within 30 days of receiving the test results and new tenants before signing a lease. If high levels of radon are found, the landlord or tenant can terminate the lease with a minimum of 30 days of notice if the landlord can’t or won’t mitigate the problem, according to Stilwell.
Landlords or property management companies not meeting requirements of the law can be fined not more than $250 per violation, although it’s not yet clear who will enforce the penalties, Stilwell said. Falsifying the results or not notifying the tenants, which also could include not doing the test at all, Stilwell said, is a breach of the implied warranty of fitness for human habitation, according to the law.
Tenants would be able to seek reparations or other remedies through the court system.
The original law required high levels of radon to be mitigated professionally within six months, but the Legislature removed that requirement last year because of concerns that mitigation would be too expensive for landlords.
Mitigation, commonly done by installing a ventilation pipe to draw air from beneath the basement slab outside the house, typically costs $1,200 to $1,500 for a single-family home, according to Stilwell.
Stilwell said tenants should check with their landlords to see if testing has been done because some landlords don’t realize they have to disclose the results. If they haven’t heard from their landlords, tenants should contact the radiation control program.
Maine is the only state with such a law, Stilwell said, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a year ago it would require multifamily developments receiving HUD funds to be tested and mitigated for radon.
Jason Mills, the owner of a one-man home-inspection company in Chelsea, said he’s seen requests for radon tests for rental buildings go through the roof since the start of the year.
Last Monday, Mills said, he tested around a dozen buildings, totaling about 50 tests, the busiest day for radon testing he’s ever had. He said it usually takes a couple of months for him to do that many tests.
Before many landlords began scrambling to get their rental units tested by the deadline, Mills said it was unusual for a property owner to request a radon test unless a home was being sold. Occasionally people would ask for tests if they had heard of the dangers of radon or knew someone with lung cancer, he said, but often the tests were part of real estate transactions.
Mills said if all rental owners and managers try meeting the deadline for testing, “there would be no way we could get it done in the next two, three weeks.”
“For me, I haven’t had to turn anyone away so far, but I’m getting to that point,” he said.
Hiring a home inspector such as Mills or one of the other roughly 100 certified testing companies isn’t the only option for landlords and property managers.
Using a tester certified with the state is required only if a building includes an elevator shaft, an unsealed utility chase or open pathway; has a forced hot air or central air system; or uses private well water, unless the water has been tested for radon by a registered person and found to have an acceptable level.
A certified tester is also required in buildings with 10 or more units.
Otherwise, landlords and property managers can conduct the tests on their own, using a kit from a state-certified laboratory or from a home improvement store such as The Home Depot or Lowe’s, for as low as $30 a kit.
All tests then need to be sent to one of the 20 laboratories certified by the state for analysis. Stilwell said the fee for analysis is nearly always built into the cost of the kit.
A high level means 4 picocuries per liter of air, commonly written 4 pCi/L. The state advises homeowners to consider reducing the radon to between 2 and 4 picocuries per liter because there is still an increased cancer risk in that zone, Stilwell said, but the risk goes up significantly after 4 picocuries.
Radon, produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil, rocks and water, can rise into homes through cracks and holes in the foundation. It is higher in Maine than in many other states because of the amount of granite here.
More than 30 years of radon testing data from the state shows that about one-third of all private homes in Maine have high levels of radon, Stilwell said. Higher levels are found in some parts of the state, especially Cumberland County, where data has shown that half to two-thirds of homes have high radon levels in the air, he said.
Radon is estimated to cause about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
TESTING LABS JAMMED
One of the five laboratories in Maine, Northeast Laboratory Services, located in Winslow and Portland, has seen demand for testing skyrocket since the start of the year.
Typically, the company analyzes 6,000 to 7,000 tests a year, said the company’s president and CEO, Rodney Mears. Now it’s doing that many a month, he said.
Mears said the company had to buy another liquid scintillation counter, the machine needed to do the tests, to put in its Portland laboratory. Both machines are now running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.
Mears, also on the board of directors for the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council, said he doubts landlords and property managers will have all of their rental units tested by the deadline.
“I think it’s impossible,” he said. “I think it’s impossible, but I hope and pray they don’t move the date or extend it because they’ll just wait to the next date to get it done.”
Mears said one problem the state may run into down the road is landlords using the law to terminate leases with problem tenants if high levels of radon are found.
This reportedly is happening already. Stilwell said he’s heard from one social worker representing a tenant that the tenant’s landlord is trying to use a high test to get rid of the tenant.
Landlord associations, such as the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association in Waterville, lobbied the Legislature last session to eliminate the requirement to test rentals for radon. Instead, the Legislature amended that law to not force landlords to mitigate high levels.
Lindsey Burrill, president of the Waterville group, which has more than 600 members, said it will be expensive for some landlords to do the testing, but requiring testing and not mitigation was a “best-case scenario.”
She said landlords need to balance addressing health concerns such as radon with having enough money to provide safe and quality housing for all their tenants.
Burrill, who helps manage more than 300 units in central Maine between two companies she owns with her family and husband, said she hasn’t done testing yet because she’s waiting to finalize details of what units have to be tested.
Her husband took the classes to be certified in testing and mitigation with the state because they have so many units to test, Burrill said. She said they probably would mitigate if high levels were found in any of the properties.
Brenda Adler, an owner of Vanguard Property Management in Hallowell, said the company is contracting a registered tester to test the roughly 100 buildings it manages in the capital area for about $850.
“It’s quite an expense for a landlord, plus the inconvenience,” Adler said. “If there’s radon, it should be checked for sure; but to have to do this many tests all at once is a lot of work.”
The owner of another management company in the capital area, Apex Property Management, said Tuesday he didn’t know the state had set a March 1 deadline for radon tests on rental property to be completed.
John Michaud, owner of the Augusta-based company, said four of his 30 to 40 buildings have been tested for radon in the last year and a half because he heard the state eventually would require testing for rentals.
“I know for sure I won’t have all my properties done by March 1,” he said.
Michaud said he anticipates the financial challenge for landlords will come if they decide to mitigate to lower the levels.
“If there’s high radon that puts somebody at risk, we would definitely let the tenant know, and we would definitely look into doing mitigation. There’s no question. We’d be getting estimates,” he said.
Ron Rodrigue, owner of Elm City Home Inspections in Oakland, said he’s seen an increased demand for radon tests in the last couple of weeks and doubts all landlords will have the testing done by March.
However, he said as long as they’re starting to set up appointments for tests, they shouldn’t worry.
He said he expects the work to pick up through March.
“Right now I’m just playing a wait-and-see game, seeing what’s going to happen. I feel like everything’s going to be OK,” Rodrique said. “The biggest thing is the apartment owners really do need to test. They really do need to test. It’s for the safety of the tenants because no amount of radon is good.”