DENVER (CBS4) – While government agencies recommend private homeowners test and mitigate radon levels, there is no law requiring publicly-subsidized housing to undergo radon testing and mitigation. A CBS4 investigation tested five public housing apartments in Denver, and found two units had twice the amount of radon than what is deemed safe in the home by the Environmental Protection Agency.
While Denver housing officials have contracted a private firm to study the best path forward to mitigate the high levels, they haven’t identified a clear solution to protect the thousands of residents they serve.
What Is Radon?
Radon is a radioactive gas that comes up naturally through the ground, but when it gets trapped in the home, it can be inhaled at highly concentrated levels and can cause lung cancer. In fact, radon exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the U.S., according to the EPA. The Centers for Disease Control said radon exposure causes more than 20,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.
Radon mitigation systems, which suck the radon gases out from underneath the home and disperse them into the outside air, can be installed on the side of homes to significantly lower toxic radon levels inside.
Even though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, was recommended by congress back in 1988, with an amendment to the McKinney Act, to begin testing and mitigation, the department has yet to create any policies enforcing the measure.
Because of the lack of regulation, local housing authorities, which own and operate public housing complexes with the support of HUD, have taken little action on their own accord.
Homes in Colorado have a greater risk of having higher radon levels, due to the geological makeup of the state’s ground material.
What We Found
CBS4 Investigates conducted testing to see what risks public housing residents are facing, hiring a nationally-certified testing agency, Area 5280 Home Inspections, to put sensors in five units of two different public housing communities: Columbine Homes and Westridge Homes.
Both of the results in the Columbine Homes complex were twice the EPA’s safe indoor radon limit, which is 4 picocuries per liter. The two results were 8.4 pCi/l and 7.8 pCi/l.
In the Westridge Homes complex, one result was just under the EPA’s limit, at 3.2 pCi/l. Two other results were far below the limit, at 1.0 pCi/l and 0.7 pCi/l.
Tony Sutherland, the owner of Area 5280 Home Inspections, conducted the testing for this CBS4 investigation.
“I’m actually a little angry that for so long people have lived under these conditions and there hasn’t been a flag,” Sutherland said. “The state needs to get involved, and something needs to be put in place to benefit these folks.”
Maria Chacón, a retired waitress, lives in the unit in the Columbine Homes complex where the highest level of radon was found. She said the findings are concerning, especially given she’s lived in her unit for the last 12 years.
“It’s very dangerous, but I don’t have too many options at my age,” Chacón told CBS4 Investigator Kati Weis in an interview translated from Spanish. “The enemy is what’s coming out from the earth and it’s invisible.”
As someone who often tests private homes, Sutherland said working on this investigation was an eye-opener.
“(Chacón) is going to continue on living knowing every day her health is at risk simply by being in her apartment and that is unacceptable,” Sutherland said. “More can be done and should be done… when you compare the cost of one mitigation system to the cost of one life, there is no comparison.”
Sutherland suspected the lower results may have been due to greater ventilation in those homes. For example, in one of the homes tested, several children live there and are in and out of the unit frequently, allowing more air to escape.
“I believe if you were to take that same house and close that house up for two days, and do a radon test, those levels would be much higher,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland also pointed out that folks who are home more often, like Chacón, will have a greater radon exposure.
“When the air is stagnant and their is very little air movement, that’s when your exposure is higher,” Sutherland explained.
What Will DHA and HUD Do About It?
CBS4 Investigates wanted to know what will be done to protect residents like Chacón, so we took our results to the owner of Denver’s public housing complexes, the Denver Housing Authority, or DHA.
DHA’s Executive Director Ismael Guerrero said the authority recognizes the threat and has hired, Environmental Technical Solutions, a private consulting firm based in Denver, to determine the best solution forward.
A spokesperson for DHA said it’s spending $9,360 on that study.
Guerrero expects to have the results of the independent study in a couple of months, and will then determine what to do about the elevated radon levels.
“We are going to be getting to all of the units in our portfolio, we’re doing it as quickly as we can, based on the funding that’s available to us from Congress and from other sources,” Guerrero said. “We are also going to continue to work with groups like the Colorado Department of Public health and others to make sure that we are educating, providing references or information to residents so that they know what they can do during this time.”
Guerrero said DHA has tested and mitigated about 60% of the public housing units it owns as it has remodeled old buildings in recent years, but not all of them.
“There are currently not any federal local or state requirements or regulations around radon testing, so our approach has been to do it when we’re doing a modernization, so we have the resources required,” Guerrero said.
That’s something that worries residents like Barbara Alcon, who lives the Westridge Homes complex. While CBS4 Investigates only found a radon level of 1.0 pCi/l in Alcon’s home, she said she’s concerned about the safety of others in the city’s public housing.
“What are they going to do if somebody dies, gets sick, because their radon was too high?” Alcon asked in an interview with CBS4 Investigates. “Are they going to feel guilty about it? Or are they going to brush it off? That’s the scary thing about it.”
In the budget proposal for next year, HUD requested $5 million to cover radon testing in subsidized housing.
But, DHA said that wouldn’t cover mitigation costs, and HUD is cutting its budget in other areas that helps maintain DHA’s buildings.
DHA said it’s evaluating creative funding options, like public-private partnerships and grant applications, to pay for radon testing and mitigation on its own.
“I would say that we are moving as fast as we can with the resources that are available to us right now, and we are always looking for new ways to leverage new dollars in,” Guerrero said.
HUD declined an on-camera interview, and supplied the following written statement:
“Secretary Carson takes this issue seriously and is committed to providing families with safe and healthy housing, as seen in the most recent budget proposal prioritizing funding to remove hazards from public housing. Aside from our recent response to Members of Congress and our Department’s request for funding for Radon testing, we have no new information to provide at this time.”
While officials in government continue to evaluate options, residents like Chacón, who already suffers from asthma, remain stuck living in toxic environments.
“It’s great that I don’t have cancer yet,” Chacón said. “It’s a blessing.”