If you rent an apartment in Maine or if you’re a landlord take note: The state of Maine is requiring that all buildings must be tested for radon.

“More people die from lung cancer caused by radon than drunk driving accidents,” said Reese Perkins, owner of Perkin’s Home Inspections in Bangor. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that is particularly prevalent in Maine.

That’s partly due to the state being relatively high in natural uranium-238. That element increases the level of radon in the air and the water.

Some fast facts about Radon

  1. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon is the top cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and is the second leading cause of lung cancer among all sufferers.
  2. The EPA reports that radon is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year. Of those deaths, 2,900 occur among people who never smoked.
  3. The U.S. Surgeon General’s health advisory in 2005 stated that Indoor radon gas is the “second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and breathing it over prolonged periods can present a significant health risk to families all over the country. It’s important to know that this threat is completely preventable. Radon can be detected with a simple test and fixed through well-established venting techniques.”
  4. According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, radon gas is the number one home health risk, ahead of fires, poisoning, and injuries sustained from falls.

Why are rental units being tested?

According to the state of Maine, landlords are required to test their rental properties for radon by March 1, 2014. Maine law gives tenants some basic rights, including an “implied warranty of habitability.” In essence, the home or apartment that a tenant occupies must be safe and fit to live in.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services recognizes the danger posed by radon gas. That’s why the state now requires landlords to include this in their testing and maintenance.

Landlords are required to give written notice to tenants about when radon testing will be done. If tests deem radon levels to be dangerous — above 4.0 picocuries per liter in air — the landlord has six months to lower the levels to an appropriate level. Another test is then run to ensure the levels are acceptable. After that, testing must be done every 10 years.

Landlords may not conduct radon tests themselves, Maine law stipulates. Instead, radon testing must be conducted by a testing agent that has registered with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Perkins is one of those licensed and registered agents.

His role is simple: be the “first responder” to determine if there is radon on the property or not. By setting up specialized tests, sometimes in tamper-proof containers, he’s able to ensure that the tenants will be breathing fresh and not tainted air.

Should the building come back with unacceptable levels of radon, the next step is to retain the services of a radon mitigation contractor.

Perkins said he works closely with several local mitigation services, including Air and Water Quality in Ellsworth.

“Mitigation is a problem that’s easy to fix,” Perkins said. “It’s a lot of money up front, but compared to lung cancer costs, it’s a small dollar item.”

According to Ryan Haulk at Air and Water Quality in Ellsworth, radon mitigation is more than just treating the air. Because of the large amount of uranium in the bedrock in Maine, radon can also be released into air in the the home through the water supply. Air and Water Quality has been doing radon mitigation in Maine since 1989.

When installing water radon systems, “a lot of times we pre-treat the water before installing the mitigation system,” Haulk said. “Radon itself comes from naturally decaying uranium found in the ground. It’s not unusual to have elevated levels in both air and water.”

Mitigation consists of increasing air flow in the building. Depending on the building, mitigation can be as simple as a pipe from the basement to the outdoors or as complex as several special mitigation machines and a network of pipes.

“If someone gets an elevated test result, we’ll perform a free estimate to determine the appropriate radon mitigation system for the property,” Haulk said.

Older homes often don’t have good materials under the slab or basement, Haulk said. In addition, slab homes often have more problems than homes with basements.

For people selling or buying a home, both Perkins and Haulk recommended requesting a radon test just to ensure that any potential problems are resolved before the transaction is finalized.

But the first step is to ensure that people are testing the home.

“The real estate market drives the radon testing,” Haulk said. “But people are taking a big risk if they don’t test. With cancer rates in Maine being so high, between arsenic and radon there’s a lot of potential exposure. But testing is inexpensive and easy.”

There are other financial reasons for landlords to comply with the new standards.

Failure to comply with the Maine state requirements can result in a landlord being fined of up to $250 per violation. If a landlord knowingly doesn’t comply or install the appropriate mitigation system, tenants can file litigation on behalf of the individuals who have been harmed by radon exposure.

Businesses operating out of rented or leased buildings should also consider testing for radon. Perkins noted that older buildings, especially should be tested.