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Cancer Cloud fallout: Ben Carson suggests HUD will now include radon problems in inspection scores

Date Published: 01/31/2020 [Source]

Secretary Ben Carson made his first public comments about radon in public housing following a yearlong investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive, suggesting in one breath that it's not a federal responsibility while in another pledging to take steps that could protect tenants from exposure to the radioactive gas.

Carson made his statements in a television interview broadcast Thursday in Alabama, where Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones one day earlier joined other federal lawmakers in pressing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to urgently address radon in response to the newsroom's investigation.

In the interview, Carson initially implied that HUD had no role in safeguarding tenants from radon, suggesting that state laws are adequate.

"There are already state regulations in place to deal with radon across the nation, so what we want people to do is follow the state regulations," Carson said in response to a question from a reporter at the local FOX affiliate. "That pretty much takes care of it."

But Carson continued. He said HUD would ensure radon testing is completed by local housing authorities by making it part of the inspection process, known as REAC, or the Real Estate Assessment Center.

"We also are going to be adding something to the evaluation, the REAC scoring that's done, to make sure that at least it's been done in a reasonable period of time," Carson said during an on-camera interview.

It's unclear what precisely Carson's comments will mean for people who live in the nation's roughly 1 million public housing units.

HUD officials on Friday did not respond to questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive to clarify Carson's comments. Carson declined to be interviewed for the newsroom's "Cancer Cloud" investigation, which was published in November. Since then, 15 federal lawmakers have called for action or money to protect tenants from radon.

Radon seeps into homes from the ground and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, killing an estimated 21,000 Americans each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The only way to eliminate radon is to test for the radioactive gas and, if it's found, to install a specialized removal system.

HUD does not require testing despite a 1988 law by Congress requiring the agency to protect tenants from hazardous levels of exposure. Federal officials waited until 2013 to begin "strongly encouraging" testing.

The Oregonian/OregonLive's investigation surveyed 64 housing authorities nationwide and found that fewer than one in three could document testing for radon. The newsroom and reporters from its parent company, Advance Local, also tested public housing complexes for radon in six cities. Reporters found high levels of radon in units in three locations: Denver; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Huntsville, Alabama.

Kurtz scolded local agencies for their failure to test, asserting that "a majority of you are legally obligated under state law to test for radon."

But The Oregonian/OregonLive could find no state law requiring radon testing in public housing, except for in Maine, where landlords must test. The newsroom consulted with the National Conference of State Legislatures and representatives of the radon-testing industry.