Caine Halter, they say, enjoyed autumn afternoons cheering for his Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. A family man who lived well and took care of himself, the out-and-about president of Coldwell Banker Caine Commercial real estate company died in 2007 at age 45.
“When Caine died of lung cancer, the first thing we did was check all of our properties, including our office buildings, for radon,” says his brother, Brad Halter, now chairman of the venerable firm in Greenville. “That was our first place we went to look, since he didn’t smoke.”
Turns out, Greenville County lies in a federally designated Red Zone, the only South Carolina county with excessive acceptable levels of the gas linked to 21,000 deaths each year in the nation — the second-leading cause of lung cancer fatalities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“From the testing done through our program, the highest average radon levels have been found in the Upstate,” DHEC’s bureau chief for air quality, Rhonda Thompson, says.
A colorless, tasteless, odorless gas, radon rises out of the Upstate’s soil from decaying radioactive uranium, largely found in granite rock, according to Brian Powell, professor of nuclear environmental engineering and science at Clemson University.
What is radon?
The tasteless, odorless, colorless gas is a “daughter product from the radioactive decay of uranium. Uranium is ubiquitous in the environment and does tend to concentrate in granite rocks, which underlie much of the Upstate.”
Source: Brian Powell, Clemson University
“So wherever you find uranium,” he says, “you will also find radon.”
Doug Thomas found it in early October when he tried to sell his townhome. Built only the year before, the home registered more than double the acceptable level of picocuries per liter, or pCi/L, the measure in a test where 4 pCi/L or higher can kill a residential real estate deal.
“So I put it on the market, thinking ‘brand new construction, there’s nothing to it, everything’s under warranty,’” Thomas says. “They do a radon test and it comes back at 9. They told me it was like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.”
The occupational therapist, who has since moved to Florida — though not because of radon — says he was finally able to sell his home after fixing the problem.
Mitigation costs vary depending on the home’s design, foundation, size, construction materials and local climate, according to National Radon Program Services, which puts the U.S. average at around $1,200.
Thomas says his real estate agent absorbed the $815 expense to install a so-called “active system,” which includes a continuously operating fan, typically situated in the lowest part of the home, such as the slab foundation. A passive system involves a simple PVC pipe.
“I don’t think it would have closed,” he says of the transaction he had to make before he could move in with his fiancée in Broward County. “I don’t think it would have been acceptable; that was one of the terms of the contract.”
The mitigation lowered Thomas’s townhome’s levels, but Don Curry, owner of Carolina RES, a Greenville firm that offers a wide range of real estate services, including appraisals and radon testing, wonders why tests typically run just 48 hours.
“Over the grand scheme of things, that’s a really short period of time. You really want to do it over a 90-day period, but that’s not realistic; nobody’s going to wait 90 days to buy a house,” he says.
Curry also questions whether any radon level is safe: “If you’ve got a three-and-a-half” — out of the EPA’s red flag of 4 pCi/L — “do you want to live there for 20 years? I probably don’t.”
DHEC says approximately 1,220 homes in Greenville County have “tested at or above” the minimum level. Of the city’s roughly 28,000 homes and apartments, more than three-quarters were built before 1999, according to neighborhoodscout.com. At the same time, Curry, Thomas and others say radon levels may be excessive in one home while a residence two doors down tests well below the tolerable limit.
In any case, Curry says, “If you’re planning on living in a home with your family, to me, it’s a no-brainer to have your home tested for radon.”
Radon levels in Greenville County
The average national indoor radon level is 1.3 pCi/L. (FAQ: What is a picocurie?)
The average indoor radon levels of Greenville County are 3 pCi/L
Source: Air Chek
Radon resources: Regulations, mitigation and testing
- The South Carolina Radon Program provides a limited supply of free tests, but not for use in real estate transactions.
- EPA guidelines recommend at least two short-term tests, together or sequentially, in the lowest “usable” level of the residence.
- Radon levels in most homes can be reduced to 2 pCi/L or below, and most homes can be fixed for about the same cost as other common home repairs.
- If your home has been mitigated, the contractor should provide for a short-term radon measurement to be conducted between 24 hours and 30 days after the system is operational.
- An additional post-mitigation test kit can be requested from DHEC, which recommends retesting homes at least every two years.
- South Carolina, which doesn’t license or certify radon-measurement technicians or mitigation contractors, is home to 19 nationally certified radon professionals. Find them at nrpp.info/pro-search and nrsb.org/find-a-pro.
- The city of Greenville began enforcing radon requirements in 2016. Radon piping must be included in the crawl space with a vertical pipe riser to the attic. If radon is detected, an active system with a fan and discharge pipe must be installed.
- Greenville County building codes require a passive radon system in all new one- and two-family residences. Piping is included only for future installation of an active system, which includes a fan, if at some point radon is detected.
Sources: Greenville County and city of Greenville officials and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The EPA offers a full range of radon-related information for families, individuals, builders, contractors, homebuyers and sellers.
Radon in water
Radon has also been found in private well water, though public water systems don’t have that problem. For more information about radon in water, call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791.