Nicole Auger, 33, moved her family into a radon-tainted unit last year. She signed a lease on her townhouse acknowledging she was made aware of the problem. Auger is shown here with her husband, Chris Wotton, and children, from left, Jonathan Auger, 9; Josh Wotton, 13; and Ariella Wotton, 3. Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

Local officials spent years sitting on test results that revealed high levels of radioactive gas in public housing in Portland, Maine.

The Portland Housing Authority discovered elevated concentrations of cancer-causing radon in 48 apartments it owns in 2014. Of those, 25 remained high when more precise follow-up testing was done the next year.

Radioactivity in each unit registered above the federal threshold that calls for installing specialized ventilation systems to remove it.

Yet the housing authority didn’t begin repairs until being contacted last year by The Oregonian/OregonLive, part of the news organization’s investigation of radon nationally.

Mark Adelson, the agency’s executive director at the time, called the timing “conveniently coincidental.”

“It was right there,” said Adelson, who retired this month. “And, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, somebody’s calling about it. Yeah, I guess it’s time.’”

Radon seeps in through flooring and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, killing an estimated 21,000 Americans each year. Federal health officials declared indoor radon a “national health problem” more than 30 years ago.

The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation found that public housing authorities across the country have refused to find and remove radon from inside tenants’ homes, leaving children, senior citizens and other vulnerable people unnecessarily exposed.

Those that checked for radon often did so in only a tiny percentage of their public housing units. Some sat on or forgot about the results without making fixes. Some never told tenants that they were living in a potential cancer cloud.

The Portland Housing Authority found radon five years ago thanks to a Maine law that requires landlords to test for the hazardous gas. On follow-up testing, one unit had radon at three times the federal action level.

Officials met in 2015 to “discuss mitigation options,” documents show. But that’s where it ended.

Adelson, who retired as executive director this month, told a reporter he had decided to forgo radon removal systems in favor of addressing other problems. “It’s a risk analysis,” he said.

He hired a radon contractor in 2018 after The Oregonian/OregonLive requested all of his emails discussing whether to repair the units that tested high.

Even then not all 25 units that tested high in 2015 underwent repairs.

The 25 had gone through both a simple short-term test and continuous monitoring for a month, the method radon professionals consider most reliable.

But rather than fix each unit that registered high for radon in two rounds of tests, Adelson ordered a third round in 2018. The results removed most homes from the mix. In the end, Portland fixed only eight.

Nicole Auger, 33, moved her family into one of the radon-tainted units last year. She signed a lease on her townhouse acknowledging she was made aware of the problem.

“I didn’t have any options to go anywhere else,” said Auger, who has three kids, one with special needs. “I just took it.”

She was relieved when crews placed a radon removal system in the basement of her home in Sagamore Village this year, following the housing authority’s reversal.

“I was just shocked that they actually did it,” she said.

Nicole Auger and her family relax at dusk outside their apartment in the Sagamore Village public housing complex. Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

More than 400,000 public housing residents live in areas that, like Portland, are at gravest risk for indoor exposure to the carcinogen, according to an analysis of federal data by The Oregonian/OregonLive. As many as half of all tests from private homes in these areas reveal radon concentrations so high that owners are advised to install specialized ventilation systems. Tens of thousands have done so.

But when it comes to homes the government owns for the benefit of America’s poorest families, officials in radon hot zones commonly do not test, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s reporting on 64 local housing authorities nationwide.

In three cities where authorities tested only occasionally, only in the 1990s or not at all, The Oregonian/OregonLive and affiliates of its corporate parent, Advance Local, readily found high levels of radon. One location was an in-home day care. Others were home to elderly people who’d breathed the air for years.

Housing agencies can neglect radon because HUD doesn’t require them to do testing on the nation’s 1 million public housing units. The most the federal housing department did was to “strongly encourage” housing authorities to test in 2013.

HUD never bothered to see if anyone listened. So The Oregonian/OregonLive checked.

The newsroom contacted housing agencies from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, spanning 26 states and nearly 125,000 units of public housing. Reporters distributed test kits to public housing residents and filed dozens of public records requests with housing authorities, reviewing thousands of pages of congressional records, HUD documents, federal radon studies and local agencies’ testing results.

The effort took more than a year, producing the only national picture of radon efforts by public housing authorities and HUD.

The investigation found that:

• HUD shrugged off requirements set by law. Congress in 1988 ordered the agency to write a policy ensuring public housing tenants “are not exposed to hazardous levels of radon.” HUD leaders did not deliver even after government auditors admonished them for failing to meet the basic requirements of the radon law, repeatedly missing deadlines and making promises they didn’t keep.

• The housing department tossed aside its own 2013 advice encouraging radon testing in public housing. During the five years following that recommendation, HUD did not test a single apartment owned by the 10 troubled local housing authorities that it operated directly.

• Local housing authorities show little interest in tackling radon, despite concrete evidence the danger is real. Fewer than one in three agencies surveyed by the newsroom could provide testing records showing they looked for radon as of last year. Most that did test found high radon levels in at least one home or common space. Two agencies have discovered more than 100 units containing radioactive air.

• Informing tenants is a low priority. In Oregon, Portland’s housing authority requires workers to tell a supervisor if they plan to spend more than five hours in an apartment with radon inside. They’re told to open all windows and bring in a fan to circulate air. But when the housing authority discovered radon in dozens of units earlier this year, residents who breathed the air all day long weren’t given any such advice. In fact, many first learned about the test results from a reporter.

• Some housing authorities neglect to eliminate the radon they find. As with Maine, officials in Omaha and Pittsburgh didn’t fix units that tested high until being questioned about it by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Pittsburgh’s housing authority blamed poor internal communication amid a leadership change. “It wasn’t really brought to the level it should have been,” Chuck Rohrer, a housing authority spokesman, said in 2018.

A study center in the Kennedy Park development in Portland, where several public housing apartments tested high for radon. Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

The Portland, Oregon, housing authority has recently changed its policy to say a tenant must be notified within six weeks of a high test result.

At HUD, officials declined repeated requests to make Secretary Ben Carson available for an interview and did not respond to written questions. But the agency has taken action since the newsroom began its inquiries last year.

Federal officials in September proposed rules to require radon testing in one narrow situation: When housing authorities renovate a public housing development and switch the type of subsidy that pays the rent. An estimated 100,000 units are expected to fall into that category in coming years, about 10 percent of public housing.

Separately, HUD formed a radon “workgroup,” spokesman Brian Sullivan said in early October. The agency was “very close” to an announcement that would be shared with housing authorities nationally, said Sullivan, who has since left HUD.

“We have to give credit where credit is due,” Sullivan said at the time, “even if it means getting a kick in the pants from The Oregonian.”

The agency would not say what new policy changes, if any, it planned to make.

HUD’s failure to protect public housing tenants from radon is “irresponsible,” said Rachael Malmberg, president of the advocacy group Cancer Survivors Against Radon.

She said HUD must do more than merely encourage local authorities to find and remove radon gas.

“A recommendation only goes so far as words on paper,” said Malmberg, 33, who has advanced-stage lung cancer she links to radon in her private childhood home in Minnesota. “There needs to be some sort of accountability.”

Congress should provide money for radon testing and removal systems, and HUD should require it, said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“It’s inexcusable,” Yentel said. “And given the decades of inaction on the radon testing, it’s clearly purposeful.”

Jon Gant, a former HUD official with a key role in the agency’s 2013 decision to recommend but not require testing, said the newsroom’s findings showed the voluntary approach hasn’t worked as hoped.

“They ought to do the testing,” he said of local housing authorities. “It’s not that hard.”

If it turns out tenants have been breathing radon because the housing agencies weren’t required to test, he added, “then shame on us.”

Some openly acknowledge not testing for fear of what they might find.

“With testing comes the necessity to correct any deficiencies found,” Tony Shomin, director of facility management in Kansas City, Kansas, said in a statement. He wrote that “with limited funding at this time this is not possible.”

Professional testing typically runs about $60 per unit. And at roughly $1,500 to $2,500, the cost of a radon-removal system in one public housing unit is relatively small considering the magnitude of risk. Breathing elevated levels of radon over a lifetime makes a person’s chance of developing radon-induced cancer as high as dying in a car crash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Public housing tenants are especially vulnerable. The same level of radon exposure is more likely to cause lung cancer in a smoker than a non-smoker, and smoking is roughly twice as prevalent among adult public housing tenants as the general population, a recent HUD study found.

While it’s impossible to know if radon caused lung cancer in a particular patient, the science on radon is clear and the danger is preventable, said Dr. Wallace Akerley, an oncologist and director of the lung cancer program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

“Radon is radiation,” Akerley said. “You should avoid it at all costs.”

Read The Oregonian/OregonLive’s full report at oregonlive.com/radon.


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