COMMENTARY | Addressing Radon Risks in Public Housing: PEER is Making Progress

Chandra Rosenthal

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Addressing Radon Risks in Public Housing: PEER is Making Progress

graphic showing radon in building structureRadon is nasty stuff. It is a colorless, odorless, and inert radioactive substance found in soil, rocks, and groundwater. Once inhaled, radon settles in the lungs where it emits radiation that damages our DNA and causes lung cancer. Its effects are especially insidious because radon exposure shows no immediate health symptoms or warning signs.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking and contributes to between 20,000 to 30,000 lung cancer deaths per year. It is also a major problem in public housing, an area already grappling with significant challenges, as it accumulates in buildings as part of the breathable air. This silent and invisible threat raises concerns about environmental justice and the well-being of some of our most vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, until recently the main federal agency responsible, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) had not been effectively addressing its radon problem,

HUD has three public housing divisions: the Offices of Multifamily Housing Programs, Public and Indian Housing (PIH), and Community Planning and Development (CPD). However, these three program offices have not had consistent radon policies. Only the Office of Multifamily Housing has a radon policy that includes radon testing and mitigation requirements.

The policy in PIH, which provides housing assistance to approximately one million households living in public housing, encourages but does not require public housing agencies to test for radon or to mitigate excessive radon levels. CPD, which provides block grants to states and localities for developing an estimated 526,000 affordable rental units and 254,000 rehabilitations, has had no radon policy at all.

Consequently, tens of thousands of public housing residents face needless risks because HUD has been –

    • Declining or refusing to follow up on radon reports in public housing units;
    • Failing to conduct radon testing in public housing authorities it operates; and
    • Failing to develop required radon reduction strategies.

Meanwhile, the public health consequences of continued inaction is growing. Amid our national affordable housing crisis, the average length of stay in assisted housing is on the rise, with the average length for a typical household reaching well beyond six years. This in turn increases low-income residents’ lifetime risk of developing radon-induced lung cancer from staying in the thousands of units with elevated radon levels, further underscoring the disproportional exposure of vulnerable groups.

Alerted to these deficiencies by frustrated HUD employees, PEER has been publicly pushing for change, and these efforts have finally paid off. HUD has just published a new rule requiring radon gas to be addressed in all HUD-supported housing.

This means that HUD will finally fulfill its now more than 35-year-old statutory mandate to –

“Develop a departmental policy for dealing with radon contamination…to ensure that housing occupants are not exposed to hazardous levels of radon…[with] programs for education, research, testing, and mitigation of radon hazards in housing.”

The recent HUD rule is a step toward rectifying disparities and safeguarding the health of all residents, irrespective of their race and background. As this example illustrates, the wheels of progress can turn, albeit with agonizing slowness. If PEER can help lubricate their turning even just a little faster, then we will have done our job.

Chandra Rosenthal / Staff PhotoChandra Rosenthal is the Director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain Office located in Denver, Colorado.


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