Not too long ago, when a multifamily housing owner in Oregon wanted to test their building for radon levels, they were hard pressed to find easy-to-follow and affordable information on how to do it. It’s not required for private property owners, and most of the existing materials on the subject are overly technical and costly. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for example, sells a guide called Protocol for Conducting Measurements of Radon and Radon Decay Products in Multifamily Buildings for $50.
But now, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) offers multifamily building owners across the state a free, comprehensive and straight-forward manual, Radon Testing for Multifamily Buildings.
Radon is a potentially dangerous radioactive gas that originates from the earth, all over the world. Colorless, odorless and invisible, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking and the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates radon is responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States.
January is National Radon Action Month, as winter is the best time to test homes and buildings for radon. Windows and doors are usually closed tight, and HVAC systems can create interior pressure differences that cause more radon to be sucked up from the earth through a home’s foundation.
Having a guide for multifamily building owners and managers is important because radon levels can vary widely from building to building, as many parts of Oregon remain at risk of high radon. For example, one multifamily apartment building can have low or no elevated radon levels, while the building next door can have dangerously high levels. And radon levels are typically higher in basements and lower units of a multifamily building.
But there hasn’t been a comprehensive guide to help property owners across Oregon accurately test their multifamily buildings… until now.
It all started in Portland.
OHA’s new Radon Testing for Multifamily Buildings manual was directly inspired by a public housing rehabilitation project conducted by a Portland public housing authority known as Home Forward.
In 2017, Home Forward began testing its public housing buildings for radon to prepare for major renovations. The agency discovered some buildings had elevated levels of radon, but guidance on what to do about it was limited. And although HUD had issued broad recommendations for radon testing in 2013, there was no specific requirement to test public housing properties.
So, Home Forward took a proactive approach, creating a policy to test, mitigate where necessary and re-test all the properties it owns – more than 100 buildings. Testing is the only way of knowing if a property or a unit has high levels of radon.
“We don’t know where we’re going to find it until we test, so we are in the process of testing all our properties,” said Carolina Gomez, Home Forward’s director of Integrated Facilities Services and Safety who helped draft the policy, as well as the resulting guide—Home Forward Radon Procedures Manual.
The guide lays out detailed procedures for initial testing, mitigation, post-mitigation testing and ongoing testing, as well as requirements for notifying residents about testing and mitigation. It also includes procedures for procurement of radon contracting services, ensuring safety and maintenance.
Home Forward is now on track to complete testing and abatement at all its properties – home to some 14,000 households – by the end of 2023.
OHA took notice of Home Forward’s success and wanted to create something similar for multifamily building owners across the state.
“It was clear that local housing authorities could use more support and encouragement for radon testing,” said Jara Popinga, OHA’s Radon Awareness Program coordinator. “What inspired us was the Oregonian’s “Cancer Cloud” article, and then learning about Home Forward’s commitment to test their buildings for radon.”
The timing was ideal.
OHA had recently finished the protocols and procedures document for testing radon levels in schools, as well as a risk communication tool kit. It was an opportunity for the agency to reconstruct those resources to make something geared toward property owners and tenants. Because Home Forward has experience with radon testing in multifamily buildings and communicating with tenants, “we thought they would be a great partner to work with to build these resources,” Popinga said. “Lucky for us, they agreed to provide support and input on our materials.”
The HUD guide for testing multifamily buildings was created by the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST), and it served as a great place to start.
“We wanted to make a document that stuck to the AARST protocols but was less technical, easier to digest and free to use,” Popinga said. “We want to remove barriers and make it easier for property owners to test for radon.”
And so, in late 2022, OHA published Radon Testing for Multifamily Buildings, one of many resources available on OHA’s Radon Resources page. The manual will help multifamily building owners and managers in the state accurately test their buildings for elevated radon.
Developed with funding from the EPA, OHA’s manual follows national guidelines for measuring radon in multifamily apartment buildings and provides step-by-step instructions and other tools to help property owners and managers plan and carry out radon testing. It contains AARST standards for testing multifamily buildings, has fillable documents that help to organize and plan for testing and materials to help communicate with tenants.
“It’s not a requirement for private housing rental companies to test for radon,” Popinga said. “In addition, it’s not a requirement for them to fix high levels of radon, if detected. However, we hope that the document will encourage such companies to seek radon testing and make it easier to take action when testing a property,” Popinga said.
If Home Forward’s experience and success in Portland is any indication, residents across Oregon who live in large apartment buildings or other multifamily homes can breathe a little easier.
“Now we have a policy in place where we have timelines in which we are going to notify residents as soon as we can” about testing and abating at their properties, Gomez said. “It’s active communication. There is less stress on residents in that they know we are taking care of the problem.”
For more information on areas of Oregon at moderate to high risk of elevated radon levels, radon testing and mitigation or to order a test kit online, contact OHA’s Radon Awareness Program at email@example.com or visit our webpage.
Additional resources for multifamily building owners, property managers and tenants
American Lung Association’s National Radon Action Plan
National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program (CDC)
Protect Yourself and Your Family from Radon (CDC)
Environmental Protection Agency radon page
The Navajo Nation Radon Program
National Radon Program services
National Cancer Institute’s radon page – This EPA-funded program is a nationally recognized leader in radon education.
National Radon Proficiency Program – resource for finding professional radon testers and mitigators
National Radon Safety Board