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Home-Buyers Should Determine Environmental Risks

Identifying certain potential environmental risks or concerns before purchasing a home can alleviate future stress and expense. Two of the more common concerns for home-buyers have to do with radon gas and gases emanating from fuel storage tanks.

Q: What exactly is radon and why is it a potential problem?
A: Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that is produced when uranium in soil rock and water decays. It finds its way into a home through cracks and other openings in the foundation. Once inside, it can accumulate in such a way that, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), it increases the risk of lung cancer, particularly for smokers. The push in recent years to conserve energy has resulted in warmer, "tighter" buildings with reduced air exchanges and increased opportunities for pollutants such as radon to build up.

Q: What level of radon gas is considered hazardous?
The level of radioactive decay is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/l).  According to the EPA, any house with a level of 4 pCi/l or higher should be remediated.

Q: What is involved in radon remediation and how much does it cost?
A: Remediation usually involves sealing cracks, installing subfloor or subslab ventilation, or increasing air movement in the house. Costs can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

Q: How can I find out if the home I wish to buy has a radon problem?
You should ask the seller if and when a radon test has been conducted. If a test has not been done and time allows, request a test as part of your purchase offer and make the deal contingent on an acceptable test. A professional firm can conduct the test or kits are available in hardware stores for about $20 (although results from these tests may take a couple of weeks). You can negotiate any remediation costs much as you would negotiate other repair issues.

Q: Are there any home construction guidelines designed to keep radon levels low?
Yes. For new housing, the National Association of Homebuilders has established guidelines for radon-resistant construction. One of these guidelines proscribes spreading gravel under the slab and funning a pipe from the gravel to the top of the house. If you are buying a new home, find out if the builder followed the radon-resistant construction standards. You can also check the library or USEPA's website (www.epa/gov/) to find out what areas area considered to be radon "hot-spots."

Q: I'm considering the purchase of an older home that used to be heated by oil. What should I know before I buy?
Many homes that were once heated with oil have been switched to natural gas. If the oil tanks were once indoors, it is usually possible to determine where they were located. If the tanks are no longer used but remain indoors, incorporate a condition in your offer that the seller remove the tank before closing the deal. These tanks usually contain some residual fuel and pose a fire and fume/odor risk. In addition, unless properly affixed to the floor, an old tank may fall over, posing a risk especially for small children.

Sometimes it may be obvious that the home had once been heated with oil, but there is no evidence of a tank. A seller should disclose the known presence of an underground storage tank. Look for old vent stacks or other evidence of a tank, and ask the owners about these signs. Fuel storage tanks must be removed when they leak, and even if there is no leakage occurring, it is advisable to remove tanks that are no longer in use to eliminate any possible future problems. Costs can be negotiated with the seller, and usually range from $1,000 to $3,000.


Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Bill Hayes, a Cincinnati attorney with Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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