HUD Fears Liability from Radon-Induced Lung Cancer

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By the end of June 04, all purchasers of HUD-owned single family properties will be required to sign a release forever discharging HUD, their marketing and management contractor, and the sales agent from any and all claims and liabilities resulting from the presence of radon or mold on the property. While HUD lauds the new form as helpful and informative, critics contend it is deceptive and discriminatory, as well as a Departmental attempt to shirk its responsibility under the law. At the request of Senators Lugar and Santorum, the HUD Office of Inspector General is currently conducting an investigation (Case HL-04-0612) into the Department’s failure to carry out legally mandated radon testing.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began distribution this month of the new Form HUD-9548-E Radon Gas and Mold Notice and Release Agreement. The form notifies prospective purchasers of HUD-owned single-family property (foreclosures) that “radon gas and some molds have the potential to cause serious health problems,” and encourages them “to obtain the services of a qualified and experience professional to conduct inspections and tests regarding radon and mold prior to closing.” By the end of June, all purchasers will be required to sign the release forever discharging HUD, their marketing and management contractor, and the sales agent from any and all claims and liabilities resulting from the presence of radon or mold on the property.

While HUD lauds the new form as helpful and informative, critics contend it is deceptive and discriminatory, as well as a Departmental attempt to shirk its responsibility under the law. At the request of Senators Lugar and Santorum, the HUD Office of Inspector General is currently conducting an investigation (Case HL-04-0612) into the Department’s failure to carry out legally mandated radon testing.

David Hill, President of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST) finds it particularly disturbing that HUD has chosen to compare radon and mold as a similar risk. “The Notice fails to explain that EPA recommends all home purchasers test for radon because radon exposure actually kills people!” says Hill. “Not to downplay the problem mold can be for certain individuals with chronic respiratory problems like asthma, it isn’t remotely comparable to a carcinogen responsible for thousands of lung cancer deaths in America every year. HUD’s caparison of radon to mold is a blatant attempt to divert the buyer’s attention from the massive liability of a radon-induced lung cancer death.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to radon is the nation’s second leading cause of lung cancer behind cigarette smoking. The Agency’s newly revised risk assessment of 21,000 annual radon-related lung cancer deaths in the U.S. is a 50% increase over its 1994 estimate.

The EPA website posts, “The World Health Association (WHO), the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as EPA, have classified radon as a known human carcinogen because of the wealth of biological and epidemiological evidence and data showing the connection between radon and lung cancer in humans.” About mold, EPA only says, “The common health concerns from molds include hay fever-like allergic symptoms. People with asthma should avoid contact with or exposure to molds.”

Dallas Jones, Chairman of the American Radon Policy Coalition (ARPC) has different concerns. According to the Coalition, HUD’s Release Agreement fails to protect the very citizens the Department is charged to serve – low-income families. The National Housing Act of 1949 states that HUD’s goal is “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family” and charges HUD with the responsibility “of providing decent, safe and sanitary housing.”

“Judging from HUD’s sudden concern with shedding radon liability, it appears likely the Department already knows there are significant radon risks associated with these properties,” says Jones. “HUD is running from its mandated responsibility. Most purchasers of HUD-owned single-family homes are investors or landlords who will either resell the property for a profit or rent it. Since they aren’t going to reside in the home, the potential presence of a Class-A carcinogen is of no consequence to them and they have no motive to invest their capital in testing and potentially mitigating dangerous levels of radon. The eventual occupants will likely be a low-income family who will never see the HUD Notice, much less an explanation of radon’s deadly consequences.”

According to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control, “People in minority groups or with low levels of income or education are significantly less likely to have heard of residential radon and its potential health risk than were whites or people with higher levels of income or education.” In 1994, President Clinton issued an Executive Order to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Families that requires every federal agency to make environmental justice part of its mission. The ARPC asserts HUD is derelict in meeting the requirements of the EO with regard to radon.

Jones believes the simple shifting of liability without an Environmental Assessment may be a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. The Code of Federal Regulations written for NEPA compliance states, ”It is HUD policy that all property proposed for use in HUD programs be free of hazardous materials, contamination, toxic chemicals and gases, and radioactive substances where a hazard could affect the health and safety of occupants or the utilization of the property.”

“Radon is both a toxic gas and a radioactive substance,” says Jones. “Simply having the purchaser of a HUD foreclosure sign a release does nothing to ensure the property is free of a substance that can so severely affect the health of the occupants.”

Elizabeth Hoffman, a Wisconsin victim of radon-induced lung cancer and spokesperson for Cancer Survivors Against Radon (CSAR) says she finds Washington’s lack of an effective radon policy immoral and hypocritical in lieu of the fact all HUD Departmental offices have been tested for radon as have all Congressional and Senate office buildings. “Radon-induced lung cancer is so preventable, but the public is not being told about the deadliness of radon exposure,” says Hoffmann “Real estate agents are quick to disregard the radon issue as nonsense and as you can see from the HUD Release Agreement, our government doesn’t really care if problem homes are ever found and mitigated. The poor folks who end up with an avoidable lung cancer as a result generally die without even knowing why.”

“One of our missions at CSAR,” continues Hoffman, “is to find other radon-induced lung cancer victims whose exposure was a result of residing in HUD properties and seeing to it they and their families are adequately compensated.”

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