Public Housing Has a Radon Problem, Investigation Finds
Officials with the Huntsville, Alabama, public housing authority had little to say after an investigation found multiple units with an average level of radioactivity above the level that radon contractors say calls for specialized ventilation systems to remove it.
By Jonece Starr Dunigan
The Huntsville Housing Authority won’t say what it will do about independent testing that found high levels of radioactive gas in apartments it owns.
Reporters from AL.com tested for cancer-causing radon last year with the help of public housing tenants as part of a national investigation into radon in public housing.
In two rounds of testing, three Butler Terrace apartments had an average level of radioactivity above the level that radon contractors say calls for specialized ventilation systems to remove it. It’s a threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Two other homes in Butler Terrace were above the federal standard in one out of two tests.
Officials with the housing authority had little to say after being presented with the results this year.
Sandra Eddlemon, the housing authority’s executive director, provided only an emailed copy of the agency’s mission statement plus two additional sentences:
HHA uses the funds provided by HUD to fulfill this mission statement to the best of our ability,” she wrote. “Our residents are very important to us.”
Radon seeps in through flooring and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, killing an estimated 21,000 Americans each year. Federal health officials declared indoor radon a “national health problem” more than 30 years ago.
Yet public housing authorities across the country have refused to find and remove the radioactive gas from inside tenants’ homes, leaving children, senior citizens and other vulnerable people unnecessarily exposed.
That finding comes from a yearlong investigation by affiliates of Alabama Media Group’s corporate parent, Advance Local, led by The Oregonian/OregonLive in Portland.
The Oregonian/OregonLive surveyed 64 large housing authorities in areas at elevated risk for radon and found that most do not look for radon.
Those that did test often did so in only a tiny percentage of their public housing units. Some sat on or forgot about the results without making fixes. Some never told tenants that they were living in a potential cancer cloud.
“I would love to see it fixed,” said Shineka Howard, whose Butler Terrace apartment tested three times the federal action level.
The findings at Butler Terrace are noteworthy because it was on a list of complexes that the housing authority previously said it tested for radon, during the 1990s.
Mike Norment, the housing authority’s facilities director, said last year that he personally tested more than 1,800 units citywide back in the 1990s. He said he found high radon in 43. He provided a map of places where radon removal systems were installed, Butler Terrace included.
When The Oregonian/OregonLive sought comment from the housing authority this year following the new testing, Norment was among those who declined to answer. He copied a reporter on an internal email at one point.
This guy is also calling me,” he wrote. “I’m not responding.
Butler Terrace, a large public housing complex in west Huntsville, was already being considered for closure.
More than 400,000 public housing residents live in areas that, like Huntsville, are at gravest risk for indoor radon, according to the news organization’s analysis of federal data. As many as half of all tests from private homes in these areas reveal radon concentrations so high that owners are advised to install radon-removal systems. Thousands do so each year.
But when it comes to homes the government owns for the benefit of America’s poorest families, officials in radon hot zones commonly do not to test.
In three cities where authorities tested only occasionally, only in the 1990s or not at all, The Oregonian/OregonLive and affiliates of its corporate parent, Advance Local, readily found high levels of radon.
One location was an in-home day care. Others were home to elderly people who’d breathed the air for years.
Denver resident Norma Flores, 69, deployed test kits provided by the newsroom and found her apartment had radon at double the level the federal government says should be fixed.
I’m really concerned,” said Flores, who moved into her unit 15 years ago after a sickness left her unable to work. “Scared to death, actually.”
The Denver Housing Authority’s executive director, Ismael Guerrero, dismissed the results from Flores and other tenants with elevated radon levels because the tests weren’t performed by a professional.
“We’re not going to comment on those test results,” said Guerrero, whose agency has tested a small percentage of its other public housing units and removed radon when it was found.
He declined to have Denver follow up on units testing high during the newsroom’s investigation.
Housing agencies can neglect radon because HUD doesn’t require them to do testing on the nation’s 1 million public housing units. The most the federal housing department did was to “strongly encourage” housing authorities to test in 2013.
HUD never bothered to see if anyone listened. So The Oregonian/OregonLive checked.
The news organization contacted housing agencies from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, spanning 26 states and nearly 125,000 units of public housing. Reporters distributed test kits to public housing residents and filed dozens of public records requests with housing authorities, reviewing thousands of pages of Congressional records, HUD documents, federal radon studies and local agencies’ testing results.
The effort took more than a year, producing the only national picture of radon efforts by public housing authorities and HUD.
Findings From the Investigation
- HUD shrugged off requirements set by law. Congress in 1988 ordered the agency to write a policy ensuring public housing tenants “are not exposed to hazardous levels of radon.” HUD leaders did not deliver even after government auditors admonished them for failing to meet the basic requirements of the radon law, repeatedly missing deadlines and making promises they didn’t keep.
- The housing department tossed aside its own 2013 advice encouraging radon testing in public housing. During the five years following that recommendation, HUD did not test a single apartment owned by the 10 troubled local housing authorities that it operated directly.
- Local housing authorities show little interest in tackling radon, despite concrete evidence the danger is real. Fewer than one in three agencies surveyed by the newsroom could provide testing records showing they looked for radon as of last year. Most that did test found high radon levels in at least one home or common space. Two agencies have discovered more than 100 units containing radioactive air.
- Informing tenants is a low priority. In Oregon, Portland’s housing authority requires workers to tell a supervisor if they plan to spend more than five hours in an apartment with radon inside. They’re told to open all windows and bring in a fan to circulate air. But when the housing authority discovered radon in dozens of units earlier this year, residents who breathed the air all day long weren’t given any such advice. In fact, many first learned about the test results from a reporter.
- Some housing authorities neglect to eliminate the radon they find. Officials in Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Maine, didn’t fix units that tested high for radon months or years earlier until questioned about it by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Omaha’s housing authority announced a top manager’s departure the same day the newsroom obtained emails showing he received tests results months before.
The Portland, Oregon, housing authority has recently changed its policy to say a tenant must be notified within six weeks of a high test result.
At HUD, officials declined repeated requests to make Secretary Ben Carson available for an interview and did not respond to written questions. But the agency has taken action since the newsroom began its inquiries last year.
Federal officials in September proposed rules to require radon testing in one narrow situation: when housing authorities renovate a public housing development and switch the type of subsidy that pays the rent. An estimated 100,000 units are expected to fall into that category in coming years, about 10 percent of public housing.
Separately, HUD formed a radon “workgroup,” spokesman Brian Sullivan said in early October. The agency was “very close” to an announcement that would be shared with housing authorities nationally, said Sullivan, who has since left HUD.
We have to give credit where credit is due,” Sullivan said at the time, “even if it means getting a kick in the pants from The Oregonian.”
The agency would not say what new policy changes, if any, it planned to make.
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