Despite Reports, There's No Run On Radon Tests

Posted: September 25, 1988

It's in the headlines, it's in the hills, it may be in your home. Radon, which causes cancer, poses a clear and present danger to the health of the American people, according to the federal government.

But despite extensive media attention to the problem in recent weeks, in Burlington County people are approaching the radon problem warily.

"Testing has been brisk compared to when we first started" (nearly 10 years ago), said Paul Gibson, vice president in charge of marketing for the Radon-X-Corp. of Mount Laurel, one of several testing companies in the U.S. ''But there are still a lot of people not testing, and that's a mistake."

Municipalities offered test kits at cost to homeowners last year and will begin supplying them at cost to residents again in mid-October. But many officials said that despite the government's advice to conduct testing, the supply of test kits outweighed demand.

"There was a degree of interest (in radon testing), but it's not the type of thing where people have been banging down the doors," said Paul Guidry, administrator of Edgewater Park. "For my residents, most don't feel it's that big a threat."

Like most municipalities in Burlington County, Edgewater Park is considered to be in a moderate risk group by the New Jersey Department of Environemtal Protection. Six communities are low risk - New Hanover, Woodland, Tabernacle, Shamong, Bass River and Washington - and only one is high risk - North Hanover.

In North Hanover, residents were a little more concerned about the problem.

"We had a town meeting with everyone, and people from the state came down," said Elaine Hinkle, the township clerk. "Not everyone tested - we still have some kits available. But the people who did test were spread around enough that we got a pretty good cross-sampling of everyone."

She said that despite the dire predictions, not that many people found a problem. Those who did found results were pretty close to acceptable levels.

Around the county, of tests that have been done, only about 10 percent of homes were found to have radon levels in excess of the 4-picocurie limit accepted as safe, said Walter Trommelen Jr., the county public health coordinator. (A picocurie is a unit for measuring radioactivity.)

"The fact that one in 10 homes is above the accepted limit is reason enough to test," Trommelen said. "Four picocuries is a liberal standard. I really see what we're doing as a minimal commitment."

He said that the county's role with radon is basically informative. It supplies pamphlets and brochures and sells test kits at cost to residents. The kits cost $2, plus $8.95 for lab analysis.

Gibson, of the radon-testing company, said that the tests the county supplies are accurate only 60 percent of the time, and that it is easy for a resident unfamiliar with testing procedures to make mistakes that would invalidate the test. Also, he said that radon levels vary seasonally, and sometimes even day-to-day.

"The fact of the matter is, you need to constantly test," Gibson said.

Trommelen agreed that the county's tests are not 100 percent accurate but added that they were better than not testing at all.

Radon-X-Corp. charges $29.95 for a cannister test similar to the one the county supplies, but also will provide a monitor test for homeowners who don't consider a few hundred dollars too much to know whether their home is radon free.

Gibson said that in his experience, many people do not believe in the danger of radon. His company even started an organization, the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST), that has lobbied Congress to make people aware of the radon problem.

"When we first started our business, we went door to door doing free tests," he said. "When you tell someone that you want to test their home for an odorless, colorless gas that causes cancer you sound like a shyster, you really do."

Although business has improved since then, he said that he thought many people were hesitant to have the test done. He suggested that one reason might be that they didn't want to be labeled with a problem.

"Some people are worried that if people see our truck in front of their house that neighbors won't let their children go inside," he said. "But radon is a real health threat that it's important for people to be aware of. It is a problem that can be handled discreetly."

In Burlington, residents' reasons for not testing ran the gamut from outright fear to genuine apathy. Many said that time was a factor.

"We are concerned about the problem, and we had talked about testing," said Dorothy Mercuri of Burlington City. "We haven't gotten to it yet, but we will as soon as we hear that the kits are available in Burlington."

Others said that they didn't think they had a problem, and others said that if they had a problem they didn't want to know.

"I'm kind of worried about it," said Mary Rado of Burlington City. "But I'm more afraid that if I found something it would be expensive to clean up.

"I'm 75 years old, I've lived in this house for 50 years. If there was a problem, don't you think I'd know by now?"

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