Proposed bill to combat residential radon levels in Nebraska

Story by Zach Tegler, NewsNetNebraska

Last week, the ground swallowed a Florida house when a sinkhole that had developed in the limestone bedrock beneath the home collapsed, burying the building and killing resident Jeff Bush.

Even though limestone is present in Nebraska, residents don’t have to worry about sinkholes developing here. University of Nebraska-Lincoln geology professor David Loope said layers of mudstone prevent water from penetrating it.

“The land surface is up to the task of supporting the buildings in Nebraska,” Loope said.

While the threat of sinkholes forming underground in the Cornhusker state is virtually non-existent, Nebraska homes do face a different invisible threat from below ground: radon.

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that comes from the decay of uranium in soil and is the product of ancient glacial deposits. The heavy gas is especially problematic in the basements of many homes, and inhalation of the gas is the second-leading cause of lung cancer nationally.

The Environmental Protection Agency reported that radon-related lung cancer causes 20,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

David Holmquist, director of government relations for the Nebraska division of the American Cancer Society, said radon exposure causes 12 percent of all lung cancer cases in the U.S. – and Nebraska has the third highest emission of radon gas in the country.

“People living in Nebraska are much more likely to be exposed to radon than people living in other states,” Holmquist said.

Home owners can buy radon test kits at some hardware stores or have qualified professional testers measure the amount of radon in their house’s air. But even with such high levels of the gas in Nebraska, no law exists to make testing mandatory, said Greg Lemon, director of the Nebraska Real Estate Commission.

“It’s just one of those things that’s a matter of if the buyer’s aware of it and it’s important that they have it done.”

A bill introduced to the Nebraska Legislature by Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha in January 2013 would change that. Krist’s bill would require new residential construction to include radon resistant properties, such as vent pipe systems that can be installed to suck radon out of the soil beneath a building and pump it out through the roof.

In Nebraska, nearly 40,000 houses have been tested for radon, with more than half of them testing with levels of radon higher than the EPA’s action level.

“It’s a big issue that needs to be addressed,” Holmquist said, “and Sen. Krist’s bill is one step.”

Loope believes the radon problem is over-blown. He said radon is only dangerous in certain situations and compared the danger of the gas to that of asbestos, in that only one type of asbestos is harmful.

“If the air is circulating in your house pretty well, it flushes it out,” he said. “If your house is really airtight and you’ve got people sleeping in the basement, that’s not a good situation.”

Krist’s bill has caught the attention of many who believe that radon mitigation systems are necessary to dispel the hazard totally.

“Similar to a sinkhole, you don’t know where it is or where it’s going to happen,” Lemon said. “When it does happen, the damage isn’t so immediate, but nevertheless can be as bad.”

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