The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has failed to ensure residents living in public housing are protected from exposure to radioactive gas, the agency’s independent watchdog determined this week, confirming findings from a 2019 investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
HUD should develop a department-wide policy making clear that radon gas is a radioactive element and set requirements for testing and mitigation in public housing and other federal housing programs.
“Due to the danger that prolonged radon exposure can pose to residents, it is critical for HUD to act,” officials from HUD’s Office of Inspector General wrote.
The federal report comes 17 months after The Oregonian/OregonLive published its “Cancer Cloud” investigation, which revealed widespread failures by HUD and local public housing authorities to protect tenants from the risk of exposure. Radon seeps in through flooring and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in America, killing an estimated 21,000 people each year.
In 1988, Congress directed HUD to develop a policy protecting residents in public housing from exposure to hazardous levels of radon. But HUD waited until 2013 to begin strongly encouraging local housing authorities to test their buildings. It still does not mandate testing or radon-removal systems across the nation’s 1 million units of public housing.
The newsroom surveyed 64 housing authorities across the country and found fewer than one in three could document radon testing. Reporters conducted independent testing in several cities, identifying high radon in public housing units in Denver, Worcester, Massachusetts, and Huntsville, Alabama – with the Huntsville Housing Authority later confirming pervasive problems.
And reporters interviewed scores of current and former tenants, including a 37-year-old Portland man with late-stage lung cancer who spent part of his childhood in public housing. His doctor suspected radon exposure from his youth as the likely cause of cancer. While his childhood home was since demolished, the neighboring property had radon levels high enough to prompt mitigation.
He died a year ago this month, leaving behind four children.
More than two dozen federal lawmakers responded to the newsroom’s investigation by pressing HUD and local housing authorities to act, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who at the time was a U.S. Senator for California. HUD proposed a pilot project and secured $4 million from Congress last year to test for radon and install removal systems in public housing, although details of the program remain scarce and lawmakers warned such low funding would “only scratch the surface of addressing this serious public health threat.”
HUD’s examiners, responding to the newsroom’s investigation, spent more than six months analyzing the agency’s radon policies not only for public housing but also programs providing grants for affordable units and subsidies for certain low-income housing projects.
The review found HUD lacked an overarching radon policy, leaving three agency programs with uneven requirements.
“As a result of this inconsistent approach to testing and mitigation, HUD cannot ensure that residents receive consistent and sufficient protection from the hazardous health effects of radon exposure,” the Inspector General’s office wrote.
The report noted that HUD regulations require all program properties to be free of radioactive substances that could affect the health and safety of occupants. Yet the agency’s written policy to encourage, but not require, radon testing and mitigation in public housing could give a local housing authority “the incorrect notion that unsafe levels of radon, a radioactive substance, are allowed to remain in its properties.”
Not requiring testing and mitigation in public housing “may result in residents’ exposure to dangerous levels of radon over time,” the Inspector General’s office wrote, adding that it often takes years or decades for past exposure to develop into lung cancer.
HUD’s public housing department should immediately revise its radon policy to effectively clarify that units must be free of radon, according to the report’s recommendations. But federal public housing officials have so far resisted.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, had been among the most vocal lawmakers in the wake of the newsroom’s investigation to pressure HUD and Ben Carson, the housing secretary under the Trump administration, to address radon problems in public housing.
On Tuesday, he said the agency’s “decades-long inaction has gone on long enough.”
“This report confirms my warnings to Secretary Carson over a year ago: HUD has repeatedly missed opportunities to ensure families living in federally-assisted housing are safe from radon, and it’s putting the health and safety of Oregonians and Americans at serious risk,” Oregon’s senior senator said in a statement.
Wyden said it’s “imperative” for the Biden administration and new HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge to act on the recommendations from the Inspector General’s office.
Fudge, until recently a U.S. Representative from Ohio, declined in 2019 to comment on the newsroom’s investigation. HUD officials declined comment Tuesday and for several weeks offered no details about plans for the $4 million pilot project, including how many units would be tested for radon.
HUD and local housing authorities would need to spend $49 million to $78 million a year for five years to test the nation’s public housing stock and lower radon levels, assuming one in five units needs mitigation. That’s according to estimates provided to HUD last year by the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, a trade group that first highlighted federal inaction two decades ago.
“I think there’s a lot of awareness at HUD, and a lot of attention to this subject,” said Jane Malone, the group’s national policy director. “Every indication that we have is that people want to do something, they want to do the right thing.”
But absent mandates from HUD, local housing authorities have been slow to react to indications of radon problems.
Some, including the housing authority serving Multnomah County in Oregon, identified numerous units with high levels of radon but were slow to notify tenants. Others, such as the Omaha Housing Authority in Nebraska and Portland Housing Authority in Maine, knew about problems for months or years but didn’t promptly make repairs until after they were questioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Among locations tested for the newsroom’s 2019 investigation, only the Huntsville Housing Authority responded by conducting its own radon testing. The agency confirmed extensive exposure in more than 60 units at one of its public housing complexes, pledging to make repairs and conduct broader testing.
The full extent of what’s happened since is unclear. Antonio McGinnis, the agency’s executive director, declined for the past five weeks to answer questions about testing and mitigation. The agency also has failed to provide any documents in response to a March 11 public records request.
On Wednesday, after this story published online, McGinnis said in an email that residents in units with high radon who wanted to move were granted transfers. He said the agency in September launched testing at other public housing complexes and recently completed the work, apparently with more problems identified.
“We are now working with the testing company on a mitigation strategy for the units that had higher levels,” he said.
Alex Corrales, the chief executive officer of the Worcester Housing Authority, initially said in response to the newsroom’s investigation that he would form a small committee to conduct a thorough review and gather more information about radon. He said the review would include a radon expert to help guide the agency.
Corrales last month declined to say if he ever formed the committee. A public records request revealed no documentation that a radon contractor was ever contacted, and no units have been tested by or for the agency.
Corrales reiterated his concern that reporters’ testing, which found one unit with high levels of radon in Worcester, was not an adequate sample to make conclusions or assertions.
“Radon testing can become expensive and unless an authority has concrete reason to believe a problem exists, the limited funding will be diverted to other glaring needs,” he said in a statement.
The Denver Housing Authority responded to the newsroom investigation by hiring a contractor to draft a radon testing and mitigation plan. Completed in October 2020, the agency has not yet begun testing units, however, attempting to limit exposure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stella Madrid, an agency spokeswoman, said testing will begin with common spaces and garages this spring, high-rise apartments this summer, and row homes and single-family houses in fall and winter.
That timeline would be two full years after the newsroom provided the Denver agency with testing records showing high levels of radon in some apartments, including Norma Flores’ home.
“I’m still sitting here living with radiation every day,” said Flores, 71, whose unit had radon at double the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says should be fixed.
Flores said she is so concerned that she opens her door every two hours to air out her home, hoping to prevent radon from pooling inside.
A cervical cancer survivor, Flores said she’s worried about her health after living in the same public housing apartment for 16 years and is fearful of lung cancer.
“I think they should just get rid of the radon,” she said. “It’s not that hard of a job.”