A funny thing happened while a citizens’ committee was drafting recommendations to the Legislature on how Florida should deal with the public heath hazard caused by radon gas. Suddenly, the powerful phosphate, home building and real estate industries not only agreed to propose a state building code to prevent cancer-causing radon from invading homes; they even approved the idea of giving radon warnings to new home buyers in counties of high or moderate risk.
For the past four or five years, these industries have fought every attempt to mitigate the radon hazard, especially in the Central Florida phosphate mining region. They applied such pressure to David Pingree, the former secretary of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), that he abandoned all commitments to protect home buyers from health risks or economic losses in the radon region.
What happened? Did the strip miners, the developers and real estate sales people catch radon religion? What transformed these “let the buyer beware” industries into born-again corporate citizens?
It would be nice to think that business conscience and responsibility to the public prompted the changes – but goodness had nothing to do with it. Like the cigarette manufacturers who have found liability protection behind the health warnings on cigarette packages, these exploiters of Florida’s dangerous ground want a similar shield.
The industries are preparing to ask the 1988 Legislature to set liability limits for their roles in peddling radon land. That’s unacceptable.
Radon gas, found in phosphate regions, seeps up from the soil to accumulate in poorly ventilated buildings. Attached to dust particles and inhaled, it lodges in the lungs and causes cancer after long-term exposure. Children are the most vulnerable victims. Radon concentrations are unusually high on the reclaimed phosphate mines in Polk and Hillsborough counties, where some old mines have been turned into high-toned subdivisions at high profits for the miners and developers – and high health risks for the buyers and occupants.
The advisory committee to the Legislature may correct that as it submits recommendations for the 1988 session. Thirteen years after Florida first became aware of the radon health hazard, it has been discovered to be a national problem. The odorless, tasteless gas is one of the leading causes of lung cancer and is believed responsible for up to 20,000 deaths annually.
A statewide survey identified 72 radon gas “hot spots” in 18 counties, including an area of about 67 square miles east of Lake Tarpon in the fastest-growing part of Pinellas County. If the committee’s draft proposals are adopted, new construction there would: be designed to prevent radon infiltration and new home buyers would have to be warned of the radon problem.
The highest radon risk counties are Hillsborough, Polk, Marion, Citrus, Sumter, Pasco and Levy.
The committee, dominated by the radon-profit industries, did not go far enough in its recommendations. In new construction on radon land, all buildings should be monitored for gas concentrations before occupancy; if over the limit, the builder should be required to correct the problem before selling the house. For the thousands of home owners who already live on reclaimed phosphate mines in Polk and Hillsborough counties, the developers and real estate people who took advantage of unwary property buyers ought to be required to make the houses safe for occupancy. Short of that, the state and county officials who failed to protect the public from a health hazard that has been known for a decade ought to test the homes in radon areas and assist the homeowners in low-cost financing to seal their houses against the gas.
Before making its final report to the Legislature, the advisory committee ought to review the radon level it would permit before requiring construction safeguards or corrective action and consult national experts in setting the threshold. Where lung cancer is concerned, there is no “acceptable risk.”