This version of the story has been edited to correct statistical errors and to clarify specific levels or incidents of radon in neighboring San Fernando Valley locations.
Radon—a naturally occurring radioactive gas that has been linked to lung cancer—rates five times higher than levels considered safe by the state in tests at homes in Studio City over the past year by the California Department of Health Services.
The result is contained in the department's May 4 annual report of radon tests performed randomly in communities around the state, broken down by ZIP code, and was also drawn from interviews with county officials.
In Studio City's 91604 ZIP code, 20 of the 134 tests revealed that levels of radon averaged five times the acceptable level of radon as determined by the state of California.
"It's not good, and yeah, people may be frightened to find out that there are high levels like that in their neighborhood," said California Health Department spokesman Ken August. "But, maybe it will encourage people to get their homes tested."
Radiation from radon is measured in picocuries per liter. The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners whose residences test at 2 picocuries per liter (2pCi/L) or higher should take some potentially simple precautions to vent their homes and dissipate the radon levels. The California Department of Health Services advises homeowners whose houses test at 4pCi/L or greater to take action to reduce radon levels.
The Studio City tests averaged 20pCi/L—five times the safe level recommended by the state, and 10 times the safe level set by the federal government. (The results could include up to three tests at a single residence; the state did not report the addresses or the specific levels of Studio City tests saying that they were confidential.)
In nearby Valley Village in ZIP code 91607, a total of 95 tests showed zero levels of radon, the same result as in 91617 and other parts of North Hollywood.
But high radon levels were found in parts of Encino, Sherman Oaks, Canoga Park, Tarzana , Chatsworth, West Hills and Woodland Hills.
"Radon test results from ZIP code area 91604 in Studio City indicate that it is considered a moderate radon potential area," said Matt Conens, also of the California Department of Public Health's public affairs office. "Radon in this area most likely comes from materials eroded from the hills that run along the southern edge of the San Fernando Valley. These hills contain marine sedimentary rocks that contain higher than background levels of naturally occurring uranium, which produces radon as a result of radioactive decay."
Michael Cantor—owner of 20-20 Advanced Properties & Mold Inspections, one of 43 state-approved master inspectors for radon levels—said he was surprised to hear about the high numbers for Studio City.
"A 20 [pCi/L] rating is off the wall," Cantor said. "That's like living in a uranium mine."
The federal Environment Protection Agency estimates that 36 out of 1,000 non-smoking people exposed to a radon level of 20 pCi/L will develop lung cancer, compared with two out of 1,000 for non-smokers exposed to a much-reduced level of 1.3 pCi/L.
In the weeks before the Studio City Patch launched, a few key community and environmental activists were asked if they knew of or had ever heard about the radon levels being unusually high in the area.
"I never heard of this, and frankly I'm surprised," said Alan Dymond, president of the Studio City Residents Association. "I just hope that this doesn't set off a panic."
Lisa Sarkin, a well-recognized community activist and longtime member of the Studio City Neighborhood Council, said she was also surprised about the radon levels.
"Uh oh, there go the property values in Studio City," Sarkin said, half-kidding. "But, yes, this is certainly of great concern and something that should be looked into further."
The Neighborhood Council's most recent Environmental Affairs Committee chairperson Michael McCue said he should have known about the report.
"For two years I've chaired the Environmental Affairs committee for the SCNC, which dealt primarily with issues of air quality and to enforce the municipal code regarding leaf blowers, and in this new term of the Environmental Affairs Committee should focus on this, perhaps. I did know about radon levels that were high in the water, the Los Angeles River, but not around houses."
McCue said he contacted experts about radon since Patch pointed him to the report, and would look into it more in depth if he's reappointed to the Environmental Affairs committee.
Another environmentalist who said he should have known more about radon locally is Studio City resident and tireless activist and actor Ed Begley Jr., who has spoken many times to the American Lung Association, which lists radon as the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.
"I always thought radon was a problem for back East," Begley said after reviewing the state study with Patch. "This is very disturbing indeed. It just goes to show that I don't know everything. I'm always learning. I have not tested my house, I haven't done it, but I will. I'll have to do it now."
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The first thing to do is test your home. Tests can cost as little as $5, but be careful because sometimes there's a catch.
Cantor, of 2020 Advanced Properties & Mold Inspection, said the home tests could cost another $40 to send off to get analyzed. The health department offers a list of inspectors and contractors who specialize in radon work—and Cantor is among them.
"Most real estate agents tell people that it doesn't make any difference or that every house has radon, and that is very misleading," said Cantor, who does many of his inspections for home sales. "Not every house has radon, and not every house should have radon."
The EPA recommends one of the short-term $5 tests, and if that shows a high level of radon, then pay for someone like Cantor, who has more sophisticated equipment.
"I use a continuous radon monitor," Cantor said. "Radon is a breakdown of uranium, and it breaks down into radon, it's decaying and reaching alpha particles and breaks up and gets into your lungs. That is how you get lung cancer. It is disturbing the cells and tissues. You can't smell it, you can't see it."
Cantor added, "When it breaks down, it's like these little explosions, and it gets into your lungs. This level in Studio City is bad. You don't want to live next door to a place like this."
August, from the state Health Department, said that living next door to a high-level house of radon does not mean your house is dangerous, too. "The health hazards are measurable and that is why we recommend that everyone test their homes."
Professional radon tests can range from $199 to $249. But if radon is found, there are often simple solutions.
"You need to ventilate," Cantor explained. "If you are in a slab home, bore holes to the soil and pipe it to the roof through the concrete and up through the roof, and up there will be installed a fan that goes continuously. It can be solar powered, but must always be going."
Cantor said that even the recommended state level of 4 pCi/L is too high for him. "Even if it showed 3.5 you should be a little concerned, you should do something about it," he said. The EPA's level of 2 is even considered too high, since the average level outside is 0.4 in nature.
The way a house is built can play into a high radon count. The Health Department offers a detailed series of construction alternatives to reduce radon, including soil suction under the house and depressurizing the crawl space under the house.
"It's more than opening your windows to let the gasses out, but there are some easy measures to fix the problem," August said.
Ultimately, you can blame the beautiful hillsides of Studio City. Conens, of the state Health Department explained: "ZIP code areas that lie along the base of the hills have similar radon potential as the Studio City ZIP code. Sherman Oaks and Encino have such similar radon potential as 91604. However, ZIP code areas that are located farther away from the hills moving north into the valley, such as Valley Village and North Hollywood, have very low radon potential."
Cantor's simple advice, from someone who tests for radon every day?
"Stay put, stay in your home, just fix it," he said. "Fix it, it's easy to do. And open up your windows, get some air in there."
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