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Residential Architects: Is radon real?

I'm buying a new (old) home and it's the first time I'll have a basement in 15 years. Our radon test came back high. Is radon real? 

I mean, I know it's a real thing, but the hysteria over radon mitigation makes me think 20 years ago someone said "Hey I can make a ton of money telling people they have cancer-causing air in their basement then selling them "mitigation services" and how will they ever know any better?"

Am I just being a conspiracy theory weirdo about this? 

Here's Brad Pitt building a house as a thank you for your advice.


 
Aug 7, 20 10:25 am
b3tadine[sutures]

It's about a $2k fix.

Aug 7, 20 10:33 am  · 
3  · 

Oh it's real. It can cause a host of health issues including death.  On a side note you don't need to have a basement to have radon issues.  A crawlspace or in some areas slab on grade construction can have radon issues.   


I think the reason why we have more issues with radon now is because newer homes are sealed up a lot tighter than the ones built 25 years ago.  In those older homes the radon was able to disperse easier and caused less recognizable health issues.  Secondly we really didn't know that radon was a problem 40 plus years ago so the cancer it caused was attributed to other things.    

Aug 7, 20 10:42 am  · 
7  · 

Also, because I'm just being contrarian about this: "a host of health issues" doesn't sound right. From what the EPA says, exposure to radon may contribute to developing lung cancer.

1  · 
RWField

I would recommend viewing the website at this link for more information about radon. https://canceriowa.org/breathing-easier/.Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. The sun is the leading environmental cause of cancer (e.g., skin cancer), but fortunately the survival rate is very good for skin cancer - even for melanoma. Radon is one of the leading environmental causes of cancer-related death. When someone develops lung cancer, there is a less than a 20% chance of survival 5 years later.  It is worth mentioning that radon mitigation is also a covered expense under many flexible health care spending accounts.

1  · 

But these things can co-exist: radon is real and potentially harmful, and a lucrative industry can be built terrifying people into spending $2,000 to fix something that might not even exist at their location.

Related: I have several friends who have recently had a ghost-whisperer come to cleanse their home.

Aug 7, 20 10:49 am  · 
1  · 

Do what you want. If you get cancer don't come here and whine about ti.

2  ·  2

Chad, I bet you’re fun to be around aren’t you?

2  · 
mightyaa

The repair is dubious at best. A pit, a pipe, and a fan is hardly a ventilation system. Radon guys also like to pretend concrete is a impervious system.

3  ·  1
Wood Guy

Concrete in good condition is airtight, so the sub-slab zone can be depressurized to evacuate the air and other gasses below the slab, assuming the slab is over a gas-permeable layer. I'm not convinced there is often a gas-permeable layer under most older slabs.

2  · 

Wood Guy this slab is from 1927, so....nope.

2  · 
mightyaa

"Airtight" concrete is not. It's permeable; vapor drive issues are common. And that's a larger molecule water, not just a gas molecule. What all this comes down to is how much negative pressure will it take to draw the gas to equalize, versus how much pressure it takes to drive through a 4" concrete slab. And at some point, you'll draw air through the slab from the basement quicker than gas from the other side of the basement. So, if you lack a vapor barrier and gravel sub base, can you really draw gas through several feet of compacted earth with less resistance than drawing it through a few inches of concrete? Probably not; that's why a lot of these retro-fit systems are shit. You kind of need that transport layer for the system to work. That means if she's concerned, she'll probably have to pull the slab, put in the necessary components, etc. making this a lot more expensive.

 ·  1
Wood Guy

Vapor and air move through materials differently, via vapor pressure differential vs. air pressure differential. Many materials are considered airtight but vapor permeable. How long would you last sealed in a concrete box? Not long, because it's considered airtight (equivalent to drywall). 

Depressurizing the sub-slab zone only requires that the concrete is less air-permeable than the soil. I fully agree that if the concrete is LESS air-permeable than the soil than you have a problem. Of course on new construction it makes sense to use a plastic vapor retarder, as well as a gas-permeable layer of crushed stone and a perforated perimeter pipe.

2  · 
Wood Guy

That should have been, "if concrete is MORE air-permeable than the soil than you have a problem."

 · 

No worries with being spicy about this, Chad. I mean, I realize that I'm writing about doubting people's professional knowledge  in the exact same way that I complain when people doubt the knowledge that architects have!

Radon just seems like, if you want to concoct a perfect way to get money out of people such that they don't really have a choice but to buy your services, you do this: invent an invisible, odorless, untouchable substance, then make it omnipresent but focused on real estate, then make checking for it  and mitigating it a requirement of selling that real estate, then offer services to mitigate it.

It's *exactly* like ghosts. 

Aug 7, 20 12:10 pm  · 
2  ·  1
midlander

you've been indiana too long...

 · 
gwharton

When I lived in Chicago as a kid, my family's house was haunted. Maybe it was just radon.

 · 
mightyaa

I've heard sun causes cancer. 5.4 million basal cell carcinoma diagnoses per year versus the 20k lung cancer from radon. I get it Donna... we're also of a age where we lived 'dangerous lives' without helmets, car seats and seat belts.

3  · 

I do wear SPF 45 every single day on my face, though.

 · 
midlander

tbh Donna i couldn't tell if you're post is intended as a joke or not. being unwilling to consider the possibilities of intangible risk is the essential feature of denialism against issues like global warming or vaccines. radon is much less important than either of those, but dealing with it isn't particularly difficult either.

3  · 
midlander

you've also demonstrated the fallacy of interpreting undesired recommendations as being evidence of a conspiracy.

1  · 
liberty bell

I’m absolutely aware that that’s the behavior I’m exhibiting, midlander. So in a way it’s a joke. But it’s also about being skeptical and aware of how grifters can use fear to manipulate. All those people driving huge-ass SUVs and square-front trucks? That’s fear-driven, not logic-based. I know that in the construction field it’s extremely common, despite our best efforts as part of that field, for people to take advantage of others.

 · 
gwharton

Radon is a bit like asbestos: there is a real long-term health danger associated with exposure to it, but the regulations surrounding dealing with it are absurdly overblown in proportion to the actual danger. Like many other asinine laws burdening our society with irrational fear, when it comes right down to it.

Aug 7, 20 12:11 pm  · 
6  ·  1
thatsthat

This is exactly what I was thinking. We've had abatement contractors try to screw our clients so many times. One said that because the floor of one room tested positive, then floor along the pathway to the room also has to be abated because the contractor will be tracking it down the hall. Oh and because the floor of the pathway has to be abated, then some of it will become airborne as he is carrying it out, then the walls and ceiling of the pathway also need to be abated... and on it went.

 · 
gwharton

Right? They act like asbestos is plutonium or something. My grandfather was an HVAC contractor back in the old days when they used asbestos duct liners, etc. He used to have big piles of asbestos shreds in his shop, the kind that is actually a health hazard (e.g. amosite and tremolite), not the kind that isn't (e.g. encapsulated chrysotile). Nobody wore respirators working with it. My mother and her sisters used to play right around it when they were little. None of them ever showed any ill health effects from it. Now, that doesn't mean it wasn't dangerous or that people haven't developed severe health problems from exposure to friable asbestos fragments. But it isn't instantly lethal, nor is it deserving of all the fear surrounding it.

 · 

I abated the asbestos duct wrap in my old house myself, following the very simple guidelines that some state (Iowa? Nebraska? Can't recall) had on their government website: wear coveralls, gloves, and a respirator; spray the hell out of all of the material with soapy water until it's sopping wet, then scrape it into bags that you twist-tie shut, label HAZARDOUS, and dispose of properly (at a tox drop). I tell people I did this and they FREAK OUT at what a risk-taker I am (then they hop into their car and drive away while texting and applying lipstick simultaneously).

5  · 
gwharton

I did the same on my own home remodel years ago. It was No Big Deal. Certainly not something that deserved a hazmat team at $1000 per hour.

2  · 
atelier nobody

I'm working on a project where we're abating asbestos-cement shingles. Every meeting, someone raises the question of whether the whole building will have to be tented, workers wearing bunny suits, the whole disaster movie scenario. Guys, they're shingles - wear gloves and basic dust masks, use a little extra care to avoid breaking them when taking them off the building, then dispose of them properly.

1  ·  1
Wood Guy

I removed a fair amount of asbestos in my construction days, before I understood all of the materials that contained it. And sometimes even pipe wraps, to "save my clients money." Twenty years later I have reduced lung function. One of my grandfathers died at 61 from what was almost certainly silicosis (he was a heavy construction forman); it was not an easy death. It's hard to understand that things that don't hurt you immediately may come back to haunt you later. It's not the same as ghosts, because we can use science to measure and anticipate the effects.

6  · 

Oops, I commented in  the wrong place.

 · 

Asbestos is nasty stuff when you dig into the research on it. I've torn off at least two roofs that I know contained asbestos in the assembly. One we just cut off the old membrane and the abatement company took care of the rest (tyvek suits, respirators, bagged all the debris). That one was for a junior college on their administration building. The other one was a small duplex and we found a label on the old tar paper that said "asphalt impregnated asbestos felt" and the date was from the 1950s I believe. Boss told us there were N95 masks (not adequate for asbestos BTW, see below) in the truck and that we should be very careful for the rest of the roof not to make a lot of dust or use the saw on anything. We'd already pulled off around 2/3rds of it already. Those are the ones I know of. I'm sure there were others that I wasn't aware of. I worry that it will come back to haunt me later. Hope your lungs don't diminish any more Wood Guy.

1  · 
timberneche

Radon is a gas from the Earth, pretty straight forward And as another commenter noted the second leading cause of lung cancer after nicotine. Asbestos is not so cut and dried. As a 9x9 floor tile which many of us see it's harmless as long as the tile isn't cracked. The adhesive holding it down has more issues with it. The dangerous stuff is the duct wraps and the pipe spray on products as well as the sprayed fireproofing that was used in a lot of schools. This is what's known as friable or disintegratable easily inhaled. Every once in a while I see an old advertisement for a company called Raybestos which made brake pads out of asbestos. There are probably a lot of traffic cops and street cleaners in the old days who are now mesothelioma patients who had to stand outside and breathe in all those fibers off those brake pads.

 · 
Wood Guy

Brake pads are still allowed to be made from asbestos in the US, and many are.

 · 

AFAIK there is nothing that regulates the use of asbestos in the US. You could still make your duct liner and all those other things from asbestos. The thing stopping it is not a law or regulation but fear of liability. Regulation through litigation.

1  · 
joseffischer

In the same boat as wood guy, cavalier in my 20s, saved bosses/clients money, didn't get paid more. Reduced lung function now, very careful about what I get into now. We'll see how my lungs are in my 60s. Father is in stage 4 lung cancer as we speak, not looking good. He did it all his life and also smoked.

 · 
wurdan freo

How high is high? limit is 4 or above... if you scored a 6 or 8 I wouldn't even worry about it unless you have young kids with developing lungs living in the basement... in Denver I pay about $1000 depending on the install. 

Aug 7, 20 1:58 pm  · 
 · 

We scored 11. 


6  · 
rcz1001

Donna, radon is a real thing.  

Is it the riskiest thing to health? In comparison to some things in the world, no. However, it is a risk to health when considering prolonged exposure. Radon is a radioactive gas. That is why the "rad" in radon. 

If you have off-gassing of radon into your home environment which maybe enclosed environment the radon gas levels can rise to an unhealthy level and prolong risks can lead to cancer and such other risks to health. As building design professionals, we have a obligation (and legal duty) to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public and occupants of our buildings. 

Radon risks falls into the health aspect of our professional obligation and duty. We are talking long term effects not just in the next 2-5 years. I hope the readings below do help. There are places where radon risks are higher than others. 

Here are some links:

https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radia...

https://www.epa.gov/radon/buil...

https://www.epa.gov/sites/prod...

https://www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/...

https://www.eli.org/buildings/...

I'm confident that you can research code related stuff and devise design solutions in your project(s) such as your new home. I am confident in your abilities to do that Donna. I do agree with you in that these risks are sometimes over dramatized at times but getting cancer because of unhealthy levels of radon is dramatic to the persons getting the cancer and its effects on their lives so yeah, not something to ignore. Especially when the 'joyride' of their life comes to a dramatic end and the remaining time of their lives is a shit show to them, their family, and their friends.

Sometimes its like there is no room to be relaxed. There's like a 'trillion and one' ways that even the modest home can adversely effect the health of its occupants and that we are legally obligated to be overly serious yet humorless curmudgeons. Still we have to find a way to have fun, be sociable, yet professionally serious about all things relating to health, safety, and welfare in our work.

Frankly, I haven't read exactly what everyone else wrote so I apologize for any duplicated points made. For what its worth, radon is not something to be hysterical about but it is something to be professionally serious about.

For an professional certification exam that I am going to be taking sometime soon, I'll need to refresh my mind on the subject matter of radon as it is something covered in the exam among other things. 

In regards to your home, I don't think you'll get cancer over night from the radon levels. If the tests are high in your basement, minimize your time in the basement until the radon risks are mitigated. Improve your basement air exchange rate/ventilation and install some radon barrier.

For a starting point for researching radon mitigation for your basement: 

https://www.google.com/search?...

Just a starting point. I'm sure you can figure out the right solution for your home. 

Aug 7, 20 2:03 pm  · 
 · 
thisisnotmyname

How many tests did you do?  Long term or short term? Multiple test are the best practice to get a good read of the overall levels over time, in other words, the amount of gas can vary over time and the season of the year.  A single test taken at a time of high concentrations can make things look worse than they are.

Aug 7, 20 2:14 pm  · 
1  · 
Wood Guy

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US. The EPA standards were derived from European studies at much higher concentrations; in Europe they often use limits higher than 4.0 Pci/L.  Others say 2.0 is safer. It's impossible to be accurate about this sort of thing but it's not something to mess with, in my opinion. Radon radioactively decays rapidly, so when you breathe it in, you get mini nuclear explosions deep in your lungs. Over time that leads to DNA damage and can lead to cancer. Will it definitely lead to cancer? Who knows. Why do some heavy smokers live to old age and others don't. There are lots of other things we do that are also dangerous. It's fairly easy to reduce the risk so why wouldn't you. 

Here are some sources:

https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon
http://www.nsc.org/learn/safety-knowledge/Pages/Radon%20Poisoning%20Prevention.aspx
http://www.radon.com/radon_facts/
https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/radon/radon-fact-sheet

And a short article I wrote: 
https://www.finehomebuilding.com/2016/07/08/radon-big-deal

There is good information in the comments here (Dana Dorsett is a trustworthy source):
https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/question/radon-is-9-3-pci-l-even-after-radon-mitigation-is-this-ok

One thing to add: if you aren't spending time in your basement, the radon levels down there are not important. Measure in the area where you will spend your time. 

Aug 7, 20 2:16 pm  · 
4  · 

Great article, Wood Guy! Thank you. I love seeing a diagram of how this is supposed to work.

2  · 
rcz1001

I concur. I like your article Wood Guy. It is really useful. Thanks.

1  · 

In the grand scheme of buying a home and mitigating potential lung cancer issues and the health care costs associated with that ... I'd say $2k is a very small price to pay. Also consider that in not addressing it, it will come up again when you try to sell in the future. You may be willing to overlook it, but future buyers may not. Just my $0.02. 

Aug 7, 20 2:18 pm  · 
5  · 
Thayer-D

Agreed. Don't mess with science, mess with this...


1  · 

Welp, thanks Thayer, there goes the rest of my workday....

 · 
rcz1001

This is a radiation-based issue that you can not completely and 100% eliminate as that is scientifically impossible. We can eliminate the unacceptable health risk hazard by methods where the radiation levels and radon gas concentration is kept consistently at acceptable levels. There is a reason why the term 'radon mitigation' is used not radon elimination. The idea is to bring the radiation levels and quantity of radon gas concentration down to acceptable levels. Radon barriers do help but ventilation is another key part of the solution. 

There are multiple levels of radon mitigation. There is no such thing as radon elimination, in a scientifically true sense. The cheapest solution is the lowest level of mitigation. The $2K solution is a start but a good solution is not necessarily going to be the lowest bidder's approach. I back Everyday Architect on a more comprehensive solution to addressing the radon issue than the cheapest solution that maybe done to reduce risk but there is also a trade-off of how much you invest in addressing the radon issue when there maybe other issues as well to address. Don't over focus on addressing radon if there are other important issues to address when you have limited financial resources. Tackle the biggest issues. In an ideal world, every home would be safer than any hospital today.


 · 

But realistically Everyday Architect as you said: once it comes up in an inspection for real estate one *can't* ignore it. If we want to sell (we will) we'll have to deal with it then or no one will buy the house, or we'll be on the hook 30 years later when our buyer's kids grow an extra arm, or whatever.

thisisnotmyname that's what I'm really curious about. I'm enough of a nerd that I'm planning to do the remediation stuff, then do long term testing over the course of the 2-3 years we plan to live in this house. This is the first house I've ever bought that I'm *not* immediately tearing apart to remodel! So why not put my renovation energy to work on a science experiment, right?

Aug 7, 20 2:51 pm  · 
4  · 
JawkneeMusic

Remedial action is to be taken if it exceeds 4 pCi/I

Aug 7, 20 3:12 pm  · 
 · 
JawkneeMusic

it causes lung cancer

 · 
JawkneeMusic

it emits alpha particles. In moron speak it is a helium with no electrons so it readily oxidizes whatever it comes into contact with

 · 
Non Sequitur

You’re pretty good with moron talk.

1  · 
gwharton

Do morons really know what "electrons" and "oxidizes" mean tho?

1  · 
Dangermouse

How Can Radon Be Real If Our Lungs Aren't Real?

Aug 7, 20 3:17 pm  · 
5  · 

The decaying radon is just an atom. And we're all made of atoms so it must be safe. I am very smart.

2  · 
midlander

technically it's not even giving you cancer it's just moving electrons around and reorganizing chemical bonds. if your dna can't tolerate a little instability maybe you're just the kind of person with lousy dna who gets cancer for no reason anyway.

3  · 
rcz1001

All radiation can cause cancer at a high enough level of radiation. When the radiation level is low enough for the type of radiation, your body can take it. If too high, bad shit happens. Even old fashion AM/FM band radio can cause problems like cancer. Exposure is the key factor and so is the type of radiation a factor. Cancer is a negative bodily response to radiation (and other causes).

 · 
rcz1001

You are correct that DNA can handle a little instability but the DNA of each type of life form is not equal. Some life forms have much stronger DNA when it comes to high radiation exposure. Humans are not one of those life forms. Our DNA is delicate. Our DNA is developed to handle the average radiation environment of Earth since human race began. Earth's magnetosphere shields us from a lot of the radiation found in space at much higher levels. This is why all manned space missions have been inside the magnetosphere of Earth. Cancer is the most common form of bio-chemical reorganization from excessively high radioactive exposure.

The reason we have skin is for radiation but our skin is not resistant to very high level of radiation but normally radiation from the sun that passes through the atmosphere and normal ambient radiation in an open outdoor environment. We never developed a 'skin' capable of shielding us from higher levels of radiation. 

You are correct that radiation from radon doesn't "give" you cancer but that cancer is a biological response to radiation. I don't call that a good type of biological response.


 · 

/\ you can't be serious? I got a fungus for that -Radiotrophic fungus

 · 
rcz1001

Do you realize that light and radio are EMR? Seriously, don't be a douche on regarding this topic matter.

 · 

put down that cell phone!

 · 

Good lord Brad Pitt is delicious.

Aug 7, 20 3:23 pm  · 
4  ·  1
proto

focus!

3  ·  2

I've heard, side effect of Radon, seeing Brad Pitt (however you like to see him)...just sayin'

 · 

I just want to cover all my bases here. I did click thumbs up by accident first on Donna's post, then had an ohhh! shit moment - whuuut - I like a dude from Springfield Missouri! fuck that, I'm north of I-70...Coach (hired revolutinoary   war dudes that were german=name), he partied with Pitt (supposedly) so I quickly did the thumbs down...total mistake, just sayin'.

 · 
ppuzzello

You bought a house?!!


Aug 8, 20 1:05 am  · 
2  · 
liberty bell

Let’s talk today! After I’ve had my coffee tho...

 · 
randomised

Just hang a wind chime in the basement, scares the hell out of radon!

Aug 8, 20 10:03 am  · 
4  · 
bowling_ball

I know I'm late to the party but if your basement isn't finished, and it's built in 1927, I wouldn't be concerned. Now, I'm not a scientist but I'm assuming your home is at least as leaky as mine (1940s) and by the sounds of it, you're not going to be addressing that with renovations.


Congrats and good luck, keep us posted.

Aug 8, 20 11:04 am  · 
3  · 
Osher

This is by far the most interesting post I have read on this web ;))

Aug 8, 20 2:46 pm  · 
 · 

If anyone is curious: we're getting the full radon remediation suction fan thingamajig *plus* we're getting the crawl space encapsulated.  Husband wanted to have the encapsulation done anyway - neither of us like basements - so the encapsulation contractor will throw in the radon thingy for a few hundred bucks. 

Hopefully the encapsulation contractor will look like this.


Aug 8, 20 3:59 pm  · 
2  · 
joseffischer

Glad to hear it. I was going to mention encapsulation and alternative options. In Atlanta we get a lot of high radon counts due to all the granite, or so we're told, but it's really hit or miss location wise. Since most have a partial basement crawlspace thing at best, usually the solution is at the joist framing, encapsulation foam and a new floor. Then just don't go into the vented crawl. We're more concerned about the actual type and thickness of foam and preventing wood rot due to humidity levels in GA. Often the cost to encapsulate to create some occupiable basement space is just not cost effective.

 · 
mrrightwilson

There’s another good reason to lay down that plastic, to prevent your house from smelling bad. That funk in old homes is caused by a lot of things, but much of it comes up from poorly sealed-off dirt in the crawl space. My girlfriend used to complain that I started smelling like my house, and so I did a little ‘digging’...

#rickitect

Aug 8, 20 9:55 pm  · 
3  · 
Wood Guy

Insulation also helps a lot, as it keeps the warm, moist air from condensing on the cool masonry surfaces where it provides mold and fungus with moisture. (It has to be the right type of insulation, of course.)

 · 
SneakyPete

Dude, negotiate that shit into the sale. I paid full freight for my first house but had them replace the roof (and simultaneously continue the renovated second floor's shitter exhaust outside instead of into the attic) and install a radon system and help with the closing costs instead.


Also don't do all this work and then install granite countertops.

Aug 9, 20 10:59 pm  · 
 · 

My dad started looking into Radon before it was well known.. we had Radon tested very early it seemed to me with a tester he got from work (he worked at the EPA).  He seems to think it's legit.. (all of his passwords..or a lot of them feature radon or some variant)..  When he put a new addition onto our home he put in a pipe under the slab and installed a fan and it definitely decreased the Radon levels in their house.

I purchased a house in CT that has concrete slab floors in our bedrooms which is technically the basement..  We installed new Radon fans and also installed filters for our well water since the levels in the water were very high (it can be released into the air while showering or anytime you turned on the water).  The radon levels were quite high when we moved in, but have gone to below an acceptable level.  It may be completely coincidental but the original owner and previous owner to us both died of some sort of cancer.

It seems like something that's not worth fooling around with..and it isn't that expensive in the scheme of things when you compare what everything costs when owning a home..

Aug 11, 20 12:00 am  · 
4  · 

I'd also add... when you start testing for Radon you start to realize how much the air in your home changes day to day... and also if you have any cracks in your floors or foundation.  Once we sealed the floor cracks with caulk the levels significantly improved and the fans worked better to remove the air below the slab.

The one thing that is important to check is the actual levels in your home.. Radon varies wildly from house to house..it completely depends on what your house is sitting on... which could be the scam feeling about it.

Aug 11, 20 12:11 pm  · 
1  · 
Jaetten

We have a 900mm minimum foundation depth here and mandatory radon barriers. Several of our listed building projects have levels of radon in downstairs rooms due to floor slabs being laid on a minimal thicknesses of groundwork and no protective measures.

From experience, its worth trying to mitigate. 

Aug 12, 20 8:54 am  · 
 · 
Non Sequitur

I think my building code permits a simple grille for venting radon out of enclosed spaces... but since 90% of homes here need full basement because of frost, it's not a big issue.  I do recall radon marketing and presentations were all the rage a few years back.

Donna, how close to BP was the GC afterall?

Aug 12, 20 9:28 am  · 
1  · 
SneakyPete

I'd say very close, considering the "oil spill" that resulted.

1  · 

I didn't meet with the contractor, my husband did.

1  · 

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