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Stalled again on radon

Despite a clearly demonstrated need, efforts to protect Floridians from exposure to cancer-causing radon gas have been delayed again by industry groups. The latest obstruction has been thrown up by the home-building and concrete trade associations, which have challenged construction standards designed to stop radon from seeping into homes.

Their reason? The issue needs more study.

That stalling tactic has been employed for at least six years by the builders, the phosphate industry and compliant legislators such as Rep. C. Fred Jones of Auburndale. Each time, the studies reaffirm that the problem is widespread and serious.

Yet the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has been trying since November 1990 to enact standards for new and remodeled homes required by 1988 legislation. The legal blocks mean it will be 1993 at the earliest before they can be approved by the Legislature.

The risk of cancer posed by indoor radon gas has been known for 20 years. Exposure to the gas, which seeps from the soil and can accumulate in homes and buildings, is considered the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the nation, after smoking. In Florida, statewide testing shows there is elevated radon in 18 counties, particularly phosphate-rich areas such as Hillsborough and Polk, where the soil contains high amounts of the uranium from which radon emanates.

Even at the acceptable state level, radon exposure is equivalent to 300 chest X-rays or smoking a half pack of cigarettes a day. Now, Floridians have no guarantee of even that minimal protection.

Rather than accept radon-proofing techniques that cost about $300 to $1000 per home, the trade associations have attacked a requirement that some homes be tested before occupancy to ensure the protections are working.

Jack Haslam of the Florida Home Builders Association argues that requiring such tests is inconsistent with common practice; no one uses a wind tunnel, for example, to see if homes are hurricane-resistant. That argument trivializes the danger. If the home contains radon, it doesn't matter how it's built, and the $75 to $125 test fee is a small cost that can easily be passed on to home buyers.

If anything, the DCA's standards are too low. It already has compromised by dropping regulations that would discourage building on radon-prone land and set radiation standards for fill materials. It also removed testing requirements for homes in which more extensive radon-proofing techniques have been used.

A hearing officer will rule on the industry groups' legal challenge by April. Whatever the outcome, the state and the Legislature must act quickly to make up lost time. Thousands of Floridians already have been exposed to cancer because of these needless delays. If the state doesn't take action, it will be responsible for exposing thousands more.