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As if home prices weren't high enough, an upcoming rule regulating radon in drinking water might raise the cost of your next home. Oddly, a provision of the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act enables the Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water office get in the business of regulating indoor air quality.
The regulation deals with radon, a substance released into the environment by the decay of uranium naturally found in soil and rock. Radon is present outdoors, in water, and can reach higher concentrations inside homes.
Because radon levels in drinking water are so inconsequential compared to the levels of radon gas found in the air, the SDWA allows the agency to set a less stringent drinking water standard in communities that implement EPA-approved plans for regulating radon gas found inside homes.
To that end, the EPA proposed a rule in 1999 — which EPA says it will soon finalize — that would require systems to reduce radon in drinking water to 300 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L). Systems could continue to meet the existing 4000 pCi/L standard if they operate in an area that has one of these EPA-approved plans. In its proposal, EPA admits it chose a needlessly stringent drinking water standard to push states into regulating radon in the air.
EPA assumes that states will chose the mitigation route, bringing the cost of the regulation down from $407 million a year to $80 million. Estimated benefits are $362 million.
But the General Accounting Office recently issued a report stating that the costs of both the 300 pCi/L standard and mitigation would be much higher than EPA estimates. Radon remediation technology can cost thousands of dollars for an existing home and requires continual monitoring. Mitigation plans may impact new home construction, raising prices for these homes. Even then, the National Research Council (NRC) notes that we lack evidence that radon mitigation will even prove effective.
Past attempts to regulate radon in indoor air have been, in fact, quite expensive, as Leonard Cole documents in his book "Element of Risk: The Politics of Radon." A New Jersey program permanently displaced residents from their homes after the government spent millions removing soil from under homes. The state then spent years and millions more trying to dispose of the soil as political debates raged over disposal options.
Ironically, reducing radon in homes isn't even necessary for public health purposes. In the early 1990s, the EPA Science Advisory Board criticized an agency report that alleged serious radon risks. The board noted: "There is no direct epidemiological or laboratory evidence of cancer being caused by ingestion of radon in drinking water it is not possible to exclude the possibility of zero risks for ingested radon." The SAB chairman concluded that a standard of 10 times less stringent than EPA's proposed drinking water standard would prove sufficient to protect public health.
In 1998, the NRC issued a congressionally mandated risk assessment, which was supposed to settle the issue. The NRC report speculates that radon released from drinking water into the air might cause as many as 160 deaths (mostly among smokers) annually. Ingestion of radon in water might cause 20 deaths a year. Based on these estimates, EPA claims that its 1999 proposal would save a total save 62 lives.
Even these limited benefits are highly questionable because the report simply rehashed the same questionable data that EPA used in the past. These data show elevated cancer levels among miners who smoked heavily and inhaled very high levels of radon gas as well as nitrogen oxides and mineral dusts in mines. Neither NRC nor EPA has been able to establish that inhalation of low-level radon gas inside homes or ingestion of it in water causes cancer.
Moreover, EPA and NRC ignore the fact that radon might not only be safe at low-levels, such exposures might be beneficial. Studies indicate our bodies create defense mechanisms against chemicals and radiation when we are exposed to low levels. These defenses help protect us from higher exposures. Some studies find lower cancer rates in regions of the nation with the highest radon levels. While such studies have limitations, they do cast doubt on EPA's claims.
Congress' attempt at making the nation's drinking water law more flexible threatens to create a whole new area of misguided regulation. This administration has a better option. It could issue a reasonable drinking water standard rather than one designed to forces states and localities down a foolish path.