New law aims to make Minnesotans get serious about radon gas

Radon mitigation installation
Radon mitigation system installed in an older home in St. Paul. The Health Department estimates that 2500 to 3000 homeowners mitigate radon each year.
Lorna Benson / MPR News

It may seem like a subtle change, but a new radon disclosure law could have big consequences for Minnesota.

Currently, sellers have to report whether they are aware of a radon problem in their home. Starting January 1, sellers will be asked more specifically if their home has ever been tested for the toxic gas.

Public health officials hope the answer to this yes-or-no question will spur more buyers and sellers to pursue radon testing. There's no debate that radon causes lung cancer. The naturally occurring radioactive gas can seep into homes from the ground and contaminate the air. It has been classified as a carcinogen for more than two decades. And the Minnesota Department of Health estimates that long-term exposure to the gas kills 700 people each year in the state.

There's also no debate that radon is a widespread problem in Minnesota. Forty percent of homes contain unsafe levels of the gas.

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But the urgency of that message hasn't resonated with homeowners or potential buyers, based on the low number of people who fix radon problems in their homes each year. Minnesota's new disclosure law is an attempt to make the threat of radon more conspicuous.

"Any prudent buyer, given the health risk, would have a radon test," said Bill Angell, a radon and indoor air quality expert at the University of Minnesota. Angell supports the new disclosure law, which also requires sellers to give a radon warning statement and a "Radon in Real Estate Transactions" fact sheet to buyers. Both documents highlight the dangers of radon exposure, which Angell says are considerable compared to many other health risks we worry about.

"Your risk, if you're a Minnesota citizen, of dying from radon exposure in your home is several times greater than your risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident," he said.

Or, put another way, Angell says the risk of death from radon is 40 to 45 times greater than the risk of death associated with accidental carbon monoxide exposure in a home.

Radon mitigation system
Radon mitigation system in the basement of a St. Paul home. The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that long-term exposure to the gas kills 700 people each year in the state.
Lorna Benson / MPR News

Some Minnesotans have already gotten that message.

The Health Department estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 homeowners mitigate radon each year. Radon program supervisor Dan Tranter says while that's a step in the right direction, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of homes and other residential buildings in the state that need radon mitigation.

"We'd like to see a much bigger change occur in people's exposure to radon," he said.

Minnesota's new disclosure law is modeled after legislation enacted nearly six years ago by Illinois lawmakers. Since then, Illinois has seen a four to five fold increase in the number of radon tests conducted in the state, and radon mitigations have doubled. This was during the height of the housing market downturn, when a third of home sales were exempt from Illinois' radon disclosure rules because the properties were in foreclosure. The Minnesota Association of Realtors says transitioning to the new disclosure rules should be a fairly routine experience. But lobbyist Paul Eger says there's a chance that some transactions could be delayed.

"If there is an increase in testing, which seems likely, are the labs out there going to be handle the additional volume in a timely manner so that we don't have delays in transactions?" he asked.

To lessen the chances of that scenario stalling a deal, Eger urges homeowners to figure out their radon exposure.

"Anybody who's living in a home right now should consider doing a radon test before they're in a real estate transaction, particularly if you're thinking about selling your home," he said.

Minnesota's new radon law also applies to new construction. The Builders Association of Minnesota says it has been using the radon disclosure language in all of its new home contracts since August.