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BOCA RATON — Radon, a radioactive gas suspected of causing cancer, has been found in high levels in luxury apartments that opened in West Boca Raton only 10 months ago.
Uptown Boca — which sits on 13 acres at Glades Road and State Road 441 — comprises restaurants, bars, an outdoor store and 456 apartment units behind the shopping plaza. But what started as glitzy dreams of a fancy new place to live, shop and eat has turned into distress for residents of the midrise apartments.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive, colorless, odorless, tasteless gas and is the second-highest cause of lung cancer after smoking, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And tests inside multiple units at Uptown Boca showed radon levels more than three times higher than the level at which the EPA says action is needed to reduce levels of the gas in homes.
The average level of indoor radon in the U.S. is 1.3 picocuries per liter. The EPA’s action level is 4 picocuries per liter. Tests inside multiple units at Uptown Boca showed levels as high as 14.8 picocuries per liter, reports from a certified inspector show.
Jonathan Denton, the managing director of Cortland Uptown Boca, said radon is common and is harmful only after long-term exposure. He said Cortland has engaged a radon mitigation company to address the problem.
Residents at Uptown Boca have complained of burning and bloodshot eyes, sore throats and constant headaches, all of which would subside soon after going outside.
Robert Navone and his wife have been staying in a hotel to avoid the toxic gas. “We had to put our cat and our dogs into a kennel because they were throwing up profusely, you know because cats and dogs will lick the walls sometimes,” Navone, 60, said. A test from a certified inspector showed concentrated radon at 10.9 picocuries per liter, more than twice the EPA action level.
Navone said the landlord offered to deduct $300 from the next month’s rent. He said he’s already spent $6,000 to stay in a hotel for about 2½ weeks in an effort to protect himself and his wife. But he says it’s not about the money.
Rent in Uptown Boca varies; a one-bedroom, one-bathroom units starts at $2,467. One resident said she pays $2,750 for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit. Navone said he pays about $3,000.
“I’m actually going to pay my rent for the rest of my lease, because I have money, just so I can stay there to get the problem solved,” he said. “All I care about is little children not dying of lung cancer, because that’s what’s going to happen. Might not happen this year, but it’s gonna happen 10 years from now.”
Jonathan Denton, the managing director of Cortland Uptown Boca, acknowledged to residents in a town hall meeting last month that he’s known about radon since Cortland took over the property from Giles Capital Group, Rosemurgy Properties, Schmier Property Group and Wheelock Street Capital in early August.
The community sold for $230 million, according to real estate industry sources. Units have between one and four bedrooms and range from 718 square feet to 1,737 square feet.
“We did know and we were aware there was a radon issue at this property when we purchased it,” Denton told residents at one town hall meeting last week, in a video taken by a resident and provided to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
But multiple residents interviewed said there were only about 100 people at the town hall meetings. With more than 450 apartment units, the majority of residents likely did not get the message.
After residents raised concerns, Denton sent an email to all residents Wednesday, which was forwarded to the Sun Sentinel. In it, he says radon is common and is harmful only after long-term exposure. But he said Cortland is working to address the problem.
“Since radon is present virtually everywhere in the United States, almost every community we purchase has some level of radon present that we mitigate shortly after purchase. Cortland Uptown Boca is no exception,” Denton wrote.
Tests typically last 48 to 72 hours or about 90 days for a longer-term test. Because radon is harmful only if exposed to it for years or decades, Denton said, tests may not accurately show long-term exposure.
One unanswered question is whether the radon at Uptown Boca is naturally coming from the ground under the building or if it’s in the building materials themselves.
“Radon typically emanates from the soil. It’s in the soil when you walk to Publix. It’s in the soil when you’re on the way to the beach,” Denton said at that town hall meeting.
At least one expert disagrees.
Mark Wahl is the owner and president of Waypoint Property Inspections, a home inspection company in Boynton Beach. He’s tested about 15 units in Uptown Boca since Aug. 17 and has more inspections scheduled. His company is one of at least three that have done tests on units in Uptown Boca.
All of the units Wahl tested have levels above the EPA action level of 4 picocuries per liter, but he said he couldn’t discuss details about any individual unit or inspection.
When residents told Wahl they can get rid of radon by opening doors and windows and using their air conditioning units, he said, “as soon as they close the windows and doors, it’s going to start building up again. It’s not something that’s going to stop.”
The source of radon at Uptown Boca, in Wahl’s opinion, is the building materials.
“It’s not 100% accurate,” he said, but, “from the results that we’re seeing, that’s what it appears to be. Could there be some ground source emanation? It’s possible, but in the lab’s opinion, it is related to the aggregate in the concrete.”
State law does not require action to be taken if elevated radon levels are found. However, “the presence of elevated radon levels represents an increased lung cancer risk to all occupants of the building,” according to the Florida Department of Health.
“Initial testing results of 4 picocuries per liter or greater in a building indicate there is potential for exposure risks in the building,” the health department writes in its radon-testing protocols.
“The Florida Department of Health has received recent calls from individuals concerned about mold and/or radon at apartments at this location,” Alex Shaw, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, said in an email.
But the department hasn’t visited the community for inspections.
It provided information about the potential health effects and recommendations on how to mitigate elevated indoor radon levels, Shaw said.
He said the department does not have jurisdiction to “regulate rental properties for mold or radon problems nor to intervene in landlord/tenant disputes.”
Another resident, Ellen Price, said her apartment showed a radon reading of 6.1 picocuries per liter. Her son, who also has a unit at Uptown Boca, had a reading of 8, which she described as “way too high.”
She moved into the community in April. On July 4th weekend, her cat was diagnosed with lung cancer. Multiple veterinarians said lung cancer in cats is exceptionally rare. Last week, Price’s cat died.
“It may have been a coincidence, I’m not sure … nobody can say that it’s the radon for sure,” said Price, but, “I’m rather upset by that.”
She wants management to be more transparent about the radon and what they’re doing about it.
“I’d like to see Cortland move their families in here,” she said. “They’re not doing that.”
As for the path forward, Denton said in his email to residents that they have a plan and have retained a company to address the issue.
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“We are committed to mitigating the radon exposure levels throughout the community as quickly as possible,” he wrote. “As part of our purchase of Uptown Boca, Cortland set aside funding to mitigate radon throughout the community wherever it may exist.”
“We have already engaged with a third party radon mitigation company, REA Remedial Solutions, to start work within the coming weeks — beginning with advancing their 50% deposit so that they can order any supplies necessary to complete the mitigation work,” Denton said. He said work is set to begin this month.
And a statement from the team of developers said: “It is not uncommon, given the South Florida building code and the significant amount of concrete used in construction, to potentially have limited amounts of radon that exceed governmental standards.
“In anticipation of a potential issue, we went above and beyond building code requirements by installing a passive radon mitigation system throughout the project,” the statement continued. “Our understanding is the current owner of the property is taking the necessary measures to initiate the system if they determine there is a need.”