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In N.H., Realtors and Regulators at Odds Over 'Safe' Radon Levels

Via Flickr CC

A long-running dispute between the real estate industry and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services is back before the state legislature this year. Realtors have put forward a bill that would force the DES to get in line with federal standards when it comes to what's considered safe levels of radon in drinking water.

New Hampshire has no standard on how much radon in drinking water is safe, but it has set a level at which it recommends homeowners take action: 2,000 picocuries per liter. Meanwhile, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has never set a limit on the safe level of radon in drinking water.

Realtors have attracted a broad bi-partisan coalition of co-sponsors to a bill that would only allow the DES to put out educational materials based on the EPA’s guidance, not the state's current radon advisory. The attorney general’s office wrote in a letter that since the EPA has not issued a standard, it would advise the DES “refrain from providing any health advisory or educational information to the public about radon in water” should the bill pass.

Bob Quinn, director of government affairs for the New Hampshire Association of realtors, told lawmakers in a hearing Wednesday that the state's DES advisory is confusing for homebuyers.

“No other state health or environmental department has such a strict standard for radon in the water,” he testified.

In neighboring states, regulators tell homeowners that they should consider taking action at 10,000 picocuries per liter, five times the New Hampshire recommendation. However, a panel of scientists in New Jersey who studied the issue in 2009, recommended that state lower its limit to 800 picocuries per liter.

DES commissioner Tom Burack countered the EPA had actually proposed a much stricter standard in the early 2000's, but shelved it after pushback from the states. In fact, Burack contends, by some measures New Hampshire’s advisory level of 2,000 is already too high.

Citing data from the National Academy of Sciences, Burack said “drinking water containing that level of radon would result in 1 in 10,000 people developing a terminal cancer, mostly stomach intestinal or blood cancers.”

He added that if you include the cancer risk of breathing in the radon that bubbles off of water into the air while taking a shower or running a dehumidifier that probability rises to 1 in 1,000.

“It is not a zero risk in any way shape or form,” Burack said.

"There is no consensus on this topic, in terms of drinking water issues," Peter Hendrick, Executive Director of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, told the committee, "I would say this: there is no safe level of radioactivity."

Radon seeps naturally into drinking water, and into the ambient air, from New Hampshire's bedrock. While the EPA has not settled on a limit for radon in water, it recommends taking action if radon levels are above 4 picocuries in the your home’s air, though levels between 2 and 4 can pose a health risk as well. 

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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