Minnesota has some of the strictest rules in the nation for mitigating radon gas in homes. But the state Department of Health is concerned the rules don't go far enough, and it's now asking builders to voluntarily install attic fans that can draw out the toxic gas.
The naturally occurring gas is odorless, invisible, and found in soils throughout Minnesota, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as many as 800 Minnesotans die each year from radon-induced lung cancer.
Even so, only a few builders have signed on to the MDH program, which is aimed at augmenting the passive radon vents required by Minnesota law.
Dean Hanson of Hanson Builders, who has been in business for 32 years, said the agency offered to give him a discount on radon-venting fans if he agreed to install them in all of the new homes he builds.
He didn't hesitate to sign on. Prospective home buyers tend to be more concerned about details like ceramic tile and whirlpool tubs than a home's radon risk, yet he's pretty sure they wouldn't want to inhale the gas on a daily basis.
"I used to be a physics teacher, so understand the concept of what radon is," he said. "Most people that buy a house, they wouldn't want to be breathing second-hand smoke inside of their house. So why would they want to breathe something that might have contamination?"
Minnesota's building code is intended to remove some of the burden on homeowners for dealing with radon by requiring all new houses to have a radon-venting pipe. But James Kelly, supervisor of the indoor air program at the health department, says the vents aren't perfect because they rely on the passive movement of air.
"It's like venting a chimney. In some cases your chimney works better than others. Some days, if the wind isn't quite right, you don't get enough draw," he said. "If you add the fan, you're creating a little bit of suction and actually getting pressure in that system to pull the radon from below the slab and vent it safely above the roof."
Touring the innards of a home built by his company in Plymouth, Hanson pointed to a pipe that comes up from the basement, and the extraction fan and said it cost about $200 to install. That's not a huge sum. But it does add up for builders. Hanson's decision to install the fans in all 50 of his homes this year will mean an additional $10,000 dollars in costs for his business. He doubts he will be able to pass that cost on to clients because home prices are so tight these days.
"That's where you start to question it," he said. "Okay, so for $10,000 a year, if I didn't sell any more houses because of it, and I really didn't affect anybody's buying decision, was it worth it for me to take $10,000 out of the company's pocket and spend it on something?"
"I made the decision that it was," hoping the move will help distinguish his company from other builders, he said. In return, MDH has given his business a "Gold Standard" designation, provided his business with promotional placards to place in homes, and radon information packets to hand out to prospective home buyers.
Despite the health benefits, only eight Twin Cities builders have signed on to the health department's program. Radon Gold Standard Outreach Coordinator Tom Standke says it took repeated phone calls to recruit that many participants, and some of them balked at the cost of automatically installing the fans.
He understands why.
"Builders have a lot of things on their plate right now, they're just working to stay alive in this business," Standke said.
It's not an ideal start to the campaign, but Standke hopes in time builders and consumers will view the extra expense of adding the radon fans as a small price to pay for improving the health of the state's housing stock.