Home Radon Levels Go From Low to Dangerous within 150 Feet

By Michael Miranda, LEED AP, HERS Rater, Building Clean Outreach Manager

A HIDDEN PROBLEM

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. Radon is released as radioactive metals uranium, thorium, and radium break down in rocks, soil, and groundwater. It enters homes primarily through openings in the basement or slab. You can’t see or smell radon. The only way to know your level of exposure is to test for it.

After reviewing state historical testing data for radon levels in the Rochester area, Building Clean suggested that Flower City Habitat for Humanity—a builder of high-quality and healthy affordable housing—perform radon testing on its latest homes. Flower City Habitat for Humanity conducted radon testing on four new homes built within 300 feet of each other.

TESTING FINDS A SURPRISING RESULT 

Despite the four homes having been built the same way—by the same builder and during the same time period—the tests found that radon levels varied significantly within just 150 feet. The results found low levels of radon on one side of the street but dangerous levels on the other side. 

Radon testing in three of the homes on the same side of the street found levels of 1.0 pCi/L or less. Testing in the fourth home, which is across the street from the other three homes, found a radon level of 8.12 pCi/L. To put these numbers in context, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers it necessary to remediate a home if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or higher, and urges remediation if the level is between 2 and 4 pCi/L. Internationally, the World Health Organization recommends action if radon levels are above 2.7 pCi/L.

Luckily Flower City Habitat has a valued volunteer in Jim Bradley, who has been working closely with the Building Clean team and has experience dealing with radon.

To test the Flower City Habitat homes, Jim used his own electronic radon monitor. Testing was performed in the basements of the homes while the homes were in the final phases of construction with finishes and appliances being installed. The electronic radon monitor has a screen that constantly displays the long-term and short-term radon level, updated daily and hourly respectively.

The electronic radon monitor results were confirmed with a traditional short-term radon test kit that is mailed to a lab for analysis. The short-term radon test kit revealed that sealing the sump pump cover produced a small reduction in radon levels.

FIXING THE PROBLEM

The EPA classifies every U.S. county into one of three radon zones—Zone 1, 2, or 3—based on predicted average indoor radon levels. The four homes that were tested are in a Radon Zone 2—counties with predicted average indoor radon levels from 2 to 4 pCi/L. During its Rochester work, Building Clean found New York State Department of Health data showing that 10% of homes with basements in Rochester have radon levels greater than 4 pCi/L.

Zone 1 counties are expected to have the highest radon levels, with predicted average indoor levels greater than 4 pCi/L. Zone 3 counties are expected to have the lowest radon levels with predicted average indoor levels less than 2 pCi/L.

The EPA stresses that no matter where you live, and no matter the radon zone, the best practice is to test your home for radon. In multifamily buildings, the EPA and the Surgeon General recommend testing all units below the third floor for radon.

After the test findings, the next step was to install a pipe from the sealed sump pump cover to the outdoors, so that radon under the foundation has an easy path out before having a chance to enter the house. Installing the pipe is called “passive radon ventilation,” but that is not always enough and a fan (powered ventilation) is sometimes needed to pull the radon out. Follow-up electronic radon monitor results showed no impact from passive ventilation connected to the sump pump cover, and powered fan ventilation would be needed.

HOW AND WHY TO TEST YOUR HOME

With energy efficiency and healthy homes being more valued, closing openings that let in pests and pollution and let out expensive conditioned air also has the potential to change home radon levels. Home improvement work such as installing a sump pump, adding a bath fan in the basement, air-sealing, weatherization, and more may allow more radon in or stop it from leaving. Re-testing your home’s radon levels after making these types of improvements is highly recommended. Because radon levels tend to vary from day to day and season to season, a short-term test (2 to 90 days) is less likely than a long-term test (more than 90 days) to tell you your year-round average radon level.

There are two types of do-it-yourself radon test methods, a traditional radon test kit that is mailed to a lab for analysis and an electronic radon monitor that displays radon results on a screen or a smart-phone app.

Both methods can be used to perform a short-term test (2 to 90 days) and a long-term test (more than 90 days). Before buying a mail-in short-term radon test kit, be sure to confirm how long you can test as some only test for 2 to 7 days.

Builders might consider investing in an electronic radon monitor, like the one Flower City Habitat for Humanity used, so they can monitor radon levels within multiple homes and buildings. According to the EPA, nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the United States is likely to have elevated radon levels. Radon is estimated to cause about 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.

BUILDING CLEAN IS HERE TO HELP

Remediation techniques can differ by home. An experienced radon mitigation professional should be consulted to reduce elevated radon levels.

Building Clean offers free assistance to non-profit affordable housing organizations to help build healthier and energy-efficient affordable housing with American-made building products. If you are interested in learning more about Building Clean’s free services, email danap@bgafoundation.org.

Radon Testing Resources

  • Check with the local or state health or environmental protection agency to see if they offer radon test kits for low or no cost.
  • The EPA lists organizations within your state that you can contact about possible discounted or free radon test kits.
  • If you would like to have a professional conduct the radon testing, the EPA offers direction.

Resources to Reduce Radon Levels

If elevated radon levels are found, the following information can help:

  • EPA Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction: How to Fix Your Home;
  • EPA resources on choosing a radon mitigation specialistand
  • The American Lung Association blog post on a staff member’s radon mitigation experience in her own home.

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Continuing Our Mission During the COVID-19 Pandemic

We are taking proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our staff and allies, including:

  • Allowing our staff to work remotely and closing our physical offices for the near-term to protect our staff, the workers in our building, and members of the public; and
  • Temporarily postponing in-person meetings and events.

While our physical spaces will be closed, our full team of professionals will continue to operate remotely in an effort to practice safe social distancing, as recommended by public health officials.

You can continue to reach our team members via their email (during this transition, email will probably work best) and phone.

Building a stronger, cleaner, more just economy is important work and we will continue to do it. We will tackle it differently by using remote meetings and other technology to allow us to communicate with our members and supporters—at least for the foreseeable future.

We hope that you and yours are safe and healthy during this trying time.

Sincerely,

The BlueGreen Alliance Foundation Team

Does Daylight Saving Time even save energy? Spring forward on energy efficiency anyways!

In 2008, The United States Department of Energy Department examined the impact of the extended Daylight Saving Time on energy consumption in the United States and found that Daylight Saving Time saved about 0.5% in total electricity per day. While this might not sound like a lot, it adds up to electricity savings of 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours—or the amount of electricity used by more than 100,000 households for an entire year.

Although Daylight Savings Time saves electricity used for lighting, another report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the time change causes a tradeoff between reducing demand for lighting and increasing demand for heating and cooling, stating that Daylight Savings actually increases residential electricity demand.

Despite what experts argue, you can spring forward with energy savings on your own. Here are some easy-to-do spring energy savings tips:

Embrace the fresh spring air by cleaning your air conditioning/HVAC filters

Over the winter unused A/C units gather dust and debris, which can strain the components necessary to make your system work efficiently. This spring, remove any leaves and debris from inside and around your unit, ensure all the grills and vents are unobstructed, and replace your unit’s air filter to ensure your unit isn’t overworking and using excess electricity.

Look for the energy-efficient products when shopping

Looking to upgrade some appliances around the house for spring cleaning? Don’t simply look for the best deal on the shelf; you can save even more if you let energy efficiency drive your decision. In 2017 alone, ENERGY STAR and its partners helped Americans avoid $30 billion in energy costs. The next time you’re in the store or shopping online, look for the EPA’s WaterSense label or ENERGY STAR certification.

Retire those old light bulbs and replace them with LEDs

Increase the life of your light bulbs by investing in energy-efficient LED and CFL bulbs, which use 75-80% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and last 25 times longer. As your light bulbs need replacing, consider efficient light bulbs to save you energy and money! Easily find the LED lights you need on BuildingClean.org.

Adjust your smart thermostat to for spring

The weather is changing as we move into spring and so are our schedules. Since you will likely be spending more time outside the house, program your smart thermostat accordingly. You can save big by adjusting the temperature in the house a couple degrees while you’re sleeping or away. It’s hard to remember to do it every day; a smart thermostat can be programmed to remember when you are gone and take care of the hassle for you!

Use shades to block direct sunlight from heating your home

The sun is a great way to allow light and heat into your home during the winter months, but as outside temperatures rise the sun’s heat can become unbearable. Close your shades and blinds when you are away from home to block direct sunlight from beaming in and heating up your living space.

Let your dishwasher do the dishes, stop handwashing

Dishwashers consume less water per load than washing dishes by hand, 3 gallons instead of a whopping 27! Handwashing dishes can use up to 5,000 more gallons of water annually compared to using an Energy Star rated dishwasher. Quickly find certified, American-made dishwashers using BuildingClean.org.

Change your ceiling fan setting to run counterclockwise

When ceiling fans are moving counterclockwise they are pulling heat from the room towards the ceiling, allowing the cooler air to make the room more comfortable. If you switch your ceiling fan to clockwise in the winter to get the opposite effect, a winter energy efficiency best practice, make sure you switch it back in the spring.  A ceiling fan can make a room feel several degrees cooler, especially when used in conjunction with an air conditioner.

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Winter Energy Saving Tips

Use a Humidifier

Indoor air, particularly in winter, can have humidity levels as low as 10 percent, but the ideal humidity level for your home is between 30-40 percent. Using a humidifier can offer a variety of benefits including fighting dry skin, soothing the respiratory system, protecting your furniture, and making your home feel warmer. The more moisture that is in the air, the warmer it will feel.

Program Your Smart Thermostat

A smart thermostat is Wi-Fi enabled and can be programmed to automatically adjust heating and cooling temperature settings in your home for optimal performance. Optimizing your temperature settings will help you save money. By lowering the thermostat 8 degrees during the daytime while away from home and during nighttime when you sleep, you can save up to $180 a year.

Let In the Sun

Follow the sun’s lead! Take advantage of the sun’s path by opening the curtains on south-facing windows in your home during the day to capture the sun’s natural warmth. It’s an efficiency win because the sun’s energy is free. It’s important that after the heat is harnessed to close the curtains to keep the heat in.

In Between the Cracks

Sealing air leaks in drafty buildings can save more than 20 percent on your heating bill. Apply tape or felt weather stripping to doors and caulk the joints around window frames and between the frame and the wall. Foam sealing may be a little easier but could trigger an assortment of illnesses. Weather stripping  can be low-cost and easy to do yourself. Remember, measure twice, cut once!

Dust Off Those Ceiling Fans

Are the ceiling fans in your home sitting still all winter? Most modern ceiling fans have a “winter” setting, which reverses the fan so that it moves clockwise instead of counterclockwise, pushing the heat near the ceiling down into the room. This is especially helpful if you have high or sloped ceilings. When operating the fan clockwise be sure to use the low setting as not to cool the warmer air you’re trying to circulate.

Check Your Vents, Move Your Furniture

Check that your home’s heating vents aren’t blocked. This will make sure every room is getting its maximum heat potential. Blocked return vents in a forced-air central heating system also could cause air pressure issues, which further disrupts the flow of heat. In addition, mildew and mold could grow in organic fabrics that block air flow.

BONUS: Keep Yourself Warm at Home

Regulating our home’s temperature is more difficult and costly than regulating our own. When home, wear a warm robe or sweater, break out the throw blankets, and invest in decent slippers. Being comfortable is key — you don’t want the thermostat so low that you have to wear a coat in your own home. But considering the potential cost savings, you may be able to find comfort with the thermostat just a couple degrees lower.

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Building Clean Teams up With HPN Select to Help Affordable Housing Owners Find Local Building Products

“Through this partnership, HPN Select and its members will have access to important information about the sourcing of their building products. Using locally manufactured products not only supports local economies and grows jobs, but decreases the environmental impact of these projects,” said Lauren Asplen, Director of Healthy Sustainability Programs at the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation. “We are thrilled to be partnering with some of the best nonprofit developers in the nation.”

BuildingClean.org is an initiative of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation and is dedicated to linking the energy, housing, job, and health sectors together in order to tap the benefits of energy efficiency for millions of low-income families. Building Clean has a database of U.S.-made, healthier energy efficient products designed to help architects and designers, consumers, contractors and developers, and manufacturers find products to help them capture the benefits of energy efficiency retrofits—including lower utility bills, improved tenant health, and increased economic development.

The mission of HPN Select is to provide high quality procurement solutions for the affordable housing sector. A Housing Partnership Network social enterprise, HPN Select focuses on delivering value-for-money contracts that achieve the right balance between price, quality, and service for its customers in order to give members greater financial capacity to fulfill their own mission related goals.

In addition to announcing the partnership, Building Clean and HPN Select announced that Select’s Vice President of Sustainability, Richard Kingston, would be presenting at the Building Clean 2019 Summit on November. 14, 2019 in Chicago. Registration for the summit is open and may be completed here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/building-clean-2019-tickets-70186470623

Failing Water Infrastructure Impacts Health

That’s right. It failed.

Water Quality Awareness Month is the perfect time to look at how our nation’s failing water infrastructure is impacting health.

Turns out that U.S. cities rely on pipes that are, on average, a century old. Age combined with strain from population growth, lack of investment, the pervasiveness of lead pipes, and emerging threats from extreme weather events have increased the burden on the current water infrastructure system and the health risks to our communities.

The pipes leak 6 billion gallons of drinking water daily, or about 14 percent of all treated water. This waste of energy and water costs $2.6 billion a year. It is estimated that the water and energy saved from stopping leaks could support 15 million households.

Leaks add water to the ground where it acts as a “universal solvent” to dissolve and spread many different types of substances, including toxic chemicals from factory runoff, construction sites, and other activities.

Health issues are associated with the water that remains in the systems as well. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently found that more than 27 million Americans get their water from systems that violate health standards.

Improperly treated water can expose Americans to harmful chemicals such as lead, arsenic, and PFAS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “young bottle-fed infants who consume mostly formula mixed with tap water can receive 85 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water.”

Overall, America’s drinking water quality is still among the best in the world. But if the current state of neglect continues that may change.

It is estimated that $105 billion is needed to repair America’s water infrastructure. In addition to reducing the chance of chemical exposure, this investment could create hundreds of thousands of family-sustaining jobs. BlueGreen Alliance research has found that improving our drinking and clean water systems to a “B” grade over the next 10 years could create about 654,000 job-years across the U.S. economy. With strong labor and procurement standards, among other policies, we can make sure that these jobs are good jobs.

Safer water. Improved health. Quality jobs. That sounds like an A+.

Construction: It’s a Woman’s World

On an average job site you will find roughly one woman for every 100 men. Just as elsewhere in the workforce, women encounter gender-related stereotypes and harassment. Additional barriers include risk of injury, a pay gap, and lack of mentorship.

But there are some unique issues as well. Much of the personal protection equipment designed for construction workers was designed for men, creating a poor fit on women and leaving them more vulnerable to accidents and injuries. One study of union carpenters found that women had higher rates of wrist or forearm sprains/strains and nerve damage than men, due in part to lack of tools that are designed for women. Person Protective equipment (PPE) such as harnesses, safety googles, gloves, and coveralls are still designed for men meaning that they are often too large for women leading everything from higher likelihood of exposure to harmful chemicals to excess material getting caught on other items.

There is some good news though. Women earn 95.7 percent of what men make in construction, though the number falls to 81 cents on the dollar for women of color.

The number of women in leadership roles within the construction industry is higher than ever, growing 15 percent in 2017. As the industry faces greater challenges finding qualified workers it is expected that the number of women pounding a nail will grow and hopefully create a more welcoming space for the coming up after them.

 

What’s In Your Water?

The drinking water systems of approximately 19 million people have been contaminated by a class of chemicals known as PFAS, according to a recent report by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University. The study found 610 contaminated sites in 43 states.

PFAS is short for per-or polyfluoroalkyl substances and what makes them great for consumer and building products are their properties that repel water and stains. However, the same properties that make them popular also make them dangerous because they do not break down easily and are not water soluble—meaning they stick around in the environment. There are a number of pathways for human exposure, one of which being the water that we drink. PFAS get into our drinking water through industrial waste from sites where they are created, disposed of, or used. Exposure through water is especially prevalent near military bases, firefighting training stations, and industrial facilities.

However, you do not need to live near one of these sites to have been exposed to PFAS. Because of their persistence in the environment, PFAS are found in drinking water systems and wells across the United States.

The exact health effects of PFAS are not totally understood yet. There are more than 3,000 chemicals in the PFAS family and tracing back health effects is difficult. Two of the worst PFAS chemicals—PFOA and PFOS—have been phased out because studies linked exposure to:

  • Testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancers;
  • Weakened childhood immunity;
  • Low birth weight;
  • Endocrine disruption;
  • Increased cholesterol; and
  • Weight gain in children.

These two PFAS chemicals are no longer in use in the United States but evidence suggests that the chemicals developed to replace them may be just as harmful.

The persistence of PFAS in the environment makes it difficult, but not impossible, to protect yourself. One step you can take is installing a water filtration system to protect you and your family. Check out BuildingClean.org for a FREE database where you can find an American-made water filtration system that works for you.

Latest Project from A Tiny Home for Good Applauded by Building Clean

The IUE-CWA Housing Corp. funded the build and also supported Building Clean as a product selection consultant. Building Clean works to find healthier, locally sourced, and more energy-efficient products at an affordable price so that the benefits of sustainable building practices are shared by everyone, regardless of the income.“We congratulate A Tiny Home for Good on completing its latest project in its quest to end homelessness,” said Building Clean National Program Manager Dana Parker. “At this afternoon’s ribbon cutting ceremony, the new renters will not only find a home, but one that is healthier, more energy efficient, and built with locally or U.S.-made products as much as possible.

Building Clean is an online database that allows residents, architects, workers, non-profits, and others to find local, healthy energy-efficient building products for their projects.

“Building Clean helps to put resident well being on an equal footing with lower utility bills,” said Parker. “We also help grow the regional economy and manufacturing sector by sourcing products as close as possible to the construction site. Building a stronger local economy means A Tiny Home for Good not only helps reduce homelessness but does it while supporting Syracuse’s tax base and employment.”

“They may be tiny homes but they have a huge impact throughout the Syracuse community and we’re proud to help them accomplish their great work,” added Parker.

Building Clean Presents at 2019 Congressional Clean Energy Expo

Building Clean Program Associate Caila Prendergast spoke to energy efficiency as the largest and fastest growing job sector in America’s clean energy economy. Clean energy jobs include workers who install energy efficiency products in buildings and homes as well as the workers who are manufacturing these products across the United States.

There are more than 2.3 million Americans working in energy efficiency—in construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, engineering, sales, and other jobs. In 2018 alone, more than 76,000 new jobs were created in the energy efficiency sector and this growth is not expected to slow down.

“Manufacturing and construction jobs deliver good jobs with sustainable wages and benefits for families,” said Prendergast. “These are the type of jobs we need more of— to regrow and protect a strong middle class.”

“Next year domestic manufacturing jobs in energy efficiency are expected to increase by nearly 6 percent,” she added. “And it could be even higher if we link our energy efficiency spending to the purchase of local—and if unavailable, U.S.-made—goods and equipment.”

2019 EESI Clean Energy Expo

But revitalizing American manufacturing is not the only thing that energy efficiency can do for this country.The benefits go beyond reducing energy usage, beyond saving money, beyond helping the environment, and beyond creating jobs.

Studies show that health and the built environment are undeniably connected. Billions in health related costs can be saved through the same work that improves energy efficiency in residential and commercial spaces. The Green and Healthy Homes Initiative reports that nearly 9 million families across the nation live in unhealthy, energy inefficient homes, leading to $82.4 billion in health care costs nationwide.

“Increasing demand for energy efficiency residential retrofits creates a unique opportunity to simultaneously address energy consumption and improve health outcomes,” concluded Prendergast. “Energy efficiency in the built environment can create healthier spaces, reduce energy consumption, and deliver good jobs for Americans. We need to work together to fully realize the potential of the clean energy economy.”