HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A South Huntsville couple is trying to get answers after their apartment complex says they were exposed to high levels of radon. Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. However, in a WHNT Taking Action Investigation, we learned getting those radon test results isn't easy because Alabama law doesn't require property owners to disclose that type of information to tenants.
Nathan Hill and his wife Lisa moved to South Huntsville last June. They decided to rent at Chaney Place Townhomes. The two loved the neighborhood and spacious apartments. It seemed like the perfect place for them to settle because Hill works from home. What the couple didn't realize is that they moved into a possible poisonous habitat, a radon red zone.
Radon is prevalent in North Alabama. The Alabama radon map shows that most of the Tennessee Valley falls in Zone 1 for levels of radon. That means counties highlighted in red have the highest potential for the odorless, tasteless, and cancer-causing carcinogen. Radon comes from the limestone rock below our feet. Unsuspecting to many, radon moves up through the soil and foundation of homes.
Hill had never lived in a radon-prone area. That's why he was surprised when apartment management knocked on his door in January asking to test his unit for radon. Hill says the testing process lasted a couple of days.
"We didn't hear anything back until the middle of February," explains Hill. "It was, 'Oh yeah, we're going to mitigate your unit.' They didn't tell us, but you don't usually mitigate unless it's high."
The Environmental Protection Agency defines dangerous levels of radon at 4 pCi/L.
A company came out to mitigate. A ventilation pipe that exhausts radon gas to the exterior of the home was installed. Since then the couple has tested their unit on their own and invested in a radon gas reader. The radon levels have consistently stayed under the EPA danger levels since mitigation.
"When there's something like this that is so dangerous to your health, you really want to know, 'What exactly was I exposed to?'" says Hill. "But we can't do that because they won't show us the results."
Hill and his wife spent months trying to figure out how much radon they were exposed to. After trying to go through layers of red tape, they contacted WHNT News 19 for help. We learned that the only reason a radon test was conducted is because the previous owner was trying to sell the property. The bank lending money to the new owner required the testing be done. WHNT tracked down the current owner, but he tells us he doesn't have the results and isn't sure he can find them.
"There are no regulations at all," says Hill. "There is no legal requirement for anybody to do anything with radon."
We took Hill's concerns to the group who runs the National Radon Hotline. Brian Hanson is a coordinator of the National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University. Hanson tells WHNT News 19 most states aren't required to divulge radon testing information to tenants that rent from them.
"Maine right now is to the best of my knowledge the only state that requires all tenant properties be tested and the results be released to tenants," explains Hanson.
The troubling fact of radon exposure is the risk of lung cancer. Hanson says research indicates that for every 20-year period of radon exposure of 2.7 pCi/L, your lifetime risk of lung cancer increases by 10 percent. For smokers, the risk is even greater. 2.7 pCi/L is under the EPA danger level. In Madison County, officials say there have been radon levels reported as a high as 45 pCi/L.
While there's no legal obligation for Alabama property owners to do anything with radon, Hill believes there should be a moral one.
"It's kind of like saying, okay we are going to stick you in a room here filled with chlorine gas. But we're not going to tell you about it. And we're not going to make whoever built that building responsible for it," says Hill.
Hill says his biggest fear of not getting the test results is lung cancer. It's not just his health he's concerned about. It's his wife, his neighbors and the kids that go to school down the street.
The Alabama Department of Public Health provides free radon test kits. You can order one here.
After weeks of trying to track down the radon test results, the owner of Chaney Place Townhomes sent us results. However, they aren't the results the couple was seeking. Morrison Avenue Capital Partners sent us the test results after Hill's unit was mitigated. It shows the unit is under .4 pCi/L. Hill and his wife were already had those numbers because they did their own testing after the mitigation system was installed.
"Whenever they hide them that makes me start questioning what`s actually going on here. You know, there`s more to question when they don`t answer," says Hill.
WHNT asked the owner why he couldn't give us the results from before mitigation. He blamed the bank that lent them money to purchase the property, saying it was their corporate policy not to release them.
Chad Campbell owner of Environmental Concepts Unlimited mitigated Hill's townhome. We asked Campbell why he couldn't give over the results.
"The owner told me not to. And he's the one who told me not to, and I'm not going to wind up crossing his path," explains Campbell.
He tells us Hill's unit tested slightly above the EPA danger level before mitigation. But he couldn't tell us the exact number because he didn't want to risk being sued. Campbell does admit he believes property owners should be required to divulge radon information.
"It`s not fair. They`re taking those people's money for rent knowing that they`re still in a dangerous situation," says Campbell.
He says at the end of the day nothing will change unless lawmakers take action.
"There needs to be some kind of law created where when they test multi-family that the results need to either go to the Alabama Department of Public Health or to the Alabama Housing Authority and have some kind of checks and balances with the landlords to say you need to get this fixed or you need to let the tenants know. There needs to be something, some kind of accountability once they test and find out they`ve got it," says Campbell.
"The government may not necessarily have our best interest at heart here. You know, the lack of regulation shows us that either there are politicians that grossly misinformed, or just lack information totally or don`t care," explains Hill.
What's also concerning is that multi-family developments that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are only required to test 25 percent of ground level units. That means several apartments across North Alabama could have dangerous radon levels and those living there may have no idea.