Prove your humanity

January is National Radon Action Month, and it’s one Pennsylvanians might want to observe. 

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium and thorium in soil and rocks. Pennsylvania has one of the most serious problems with radon in the country. It’s dangerous because radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. 

This year the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released a PSA featuring PA resident Jackie Nixon. A non-smoker, Nixon believes the lung cancer she was diagnosed with six years ago was caused by high radon levels in her condo building.

Radon gas gets into homes from the cracks in foundations and builds up in the basement, rising up to living areas and exposing people and pets over the years. 

Bob Lewis has been working on radon issues for 37 years. He’s the Radon Program Manager at the DEP. 

“You know that old analogy or saying, out of sight, out of mind,” Lewis said. “That causes us problems because people just aren’t aware that it’s in their homes, but it is.”

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Lewis about radon and what to do about it. 

LISTEN to the interview

Kara Holsopple: Why does Pennsylvania have so much radon?

Lewis: It’s just some of the unique characteristics that we have. We have just a slight amount more of uranium and thorium in the soil and rocks. We have ideal rain and weather characteristics, certain amounts of soil moisture that are more conducive to radon coming into the home. Those are specific to certain areas, but in general, we just seem to have a little bit more radon than many other parts of the country.

Holsopple: Is it more common in particular parts of the state?

Lewis: I would say probably the southeast corner of Pennsylvania is where it was originally discovered in Boyertown and something known as a Reading Prong that extends from just about the New Jersey border, where Easton is to Allentown, Bethlehem, in Reading — that’s one of our bad areas. Central Pennsylvania is one of our bad areas: Dauphin, Cumberland, York [counties]. And then some of the surrounding counties around Pittsburgh. I would say [these] are our three probably worst areas.

Holsopple: How common a problem is it in homes?

Lewis: It’s in everybody’s home to a certain degree. About 40% of our homes in PA are above the federal government’s guideline, which is four picoCuries per liter. Those are just the units that they use to describe radon.

Contact the Radon Division

DEP Radon Division Website

Radon Hotline: 800-237-2366

Email: ra************@pa.gov

Holsopple: So how do you know if your home has radon?

Lewis: Testing. Homeowners can go out to many of the home centers now, and a lot of times online, and they can purchase a test kit for probably $25-$35. This is an ideal time to do the testing because the house is closed up, which is one of the requirements for testing. 

They can also call the radon industry. There’s a well-established radon industry in the state. The industry consists of the testers, mitigators and laboratories, so they can call a radon tester if they’re not comfortable with doing it themselves. You’re probably talking $150 to have a tester come in and do it for you.

Holsopple: What’s the testing process like? 

Lewis: Lots of times, it’s basically as simple as just a charcoal canister. It’s a metal can, or there’s some other configurations. You take it down in the basement, open the lid. 

You then set the test kit on a workbench you might have down there or a bookshelf or something – ideally, maybe anywhere from waist to neck high. You leave it undisturbed for two to four days, roughly. 

At the end of that time period, you seal it up, and then you put it in the mail. It’s also important to get it in the mail ASAP because it is time sensitive. Once you close it up, the radon in that test kit starts to sort of slowly but surely disappear. Probably in a week and a half to two weeks, the lab will either email or send you some test results through the mail.

At that time, if they have any questions, homeowners or schools or building owners can, by all means, give us a call. That’s one of the things we do down here is just answer people’s questions on the phone, email, whatever, about what your test results mean and what you need to do next.

Holsopple: So what do you do if you find radon in your home? 

Lewis: If folks are above the four picoCurie per liter value, then the next step would be to call in the radon mitigation contractors. Those would be the folks that would come into the house, look at your basement, and they would design a plan for how they would deal with it. 

It’s almost exclusively all via some sort of a ventilation system where they need to basically cut a hole or several holes through the basement floor – anywhere from five to six-inch diameter hole – and they insert a PVC pipe into the hole. Then they seal it back up, run the pipe up along the wall of your basement outside,  just above the basement wall. 

Outside is a fan, and then above the fan, there’s another stack of PVC pipe going to the roof line. And basically, what you have in your house is just a vacuum cleaner. 

The systems work very well. They can get down to one or two picoCuries per liter very easily. They’re low maintenance. You’re probably talking about $800 to $1,200 as a rough cost for the installation. The only thing we do recommend is that folks test their home every two years just to make sure the system is still working properly.

Holsopple: Is it about spending time in your basement, or could it affect you in any part of your house?

Lewis: The first floor is about half of what the basement is. So if you had 8 or 10 picoCuries in the basement, you’ll have about 4 or 5 picoCuries upstairs and just about the same on the second floor as well. So because it’s a gas, it does drift upstairs with the air currents that normally rise in a house.

Holsopple: What’s a common misconception about radon? 

Lewis: Well, one of the things is [people will say] my neighbor tested, and he doesn’t have any radon, so I don’t have to test. That’s something we hear quite a bit, which is not true. 

We’ve found over the many, many years of testing now that it’s very site-specific. Your neighbor could test and find low levels, and then you go and test, and you’re only 50 feet away, and you can find high levels. It’s just because of the geology being just slightly different from one area to another, and because construction features are different.

Holsopple: My house is almost 100 years old. Is that the age of your house matter? 

Lewis: Not particularly. Some people are starting to say that the newer houses, because they’re so much tighter – really tight windows, tight doors, everything is sealed up – may have more problems, but it still depends upon the geology that they’re sitting on. 

We’ve had 100-year-old farmhouses that can still have very high levels. And conversely, we’ve had very super tight homes that have really low air exchanges that have very low radon. 

Holsopple: You’re probably biased. But how important is it to get your home tested for radon? 

Lewis: I would say in Pennsylvania, I think it’s very important. I’ve made this argument many, many times, and I think it stands on solid ground. 

I think we could say that Pennsylvania probably has the worst radon levels in the country. We have a lot of what I call high-end data results, over 20 [picoCuries] or five times the EPA guideline. 

We have seven or eight percent of our homes that are over that range. We have homes in the hundreds and occasionally even in the thousands. Plus, we have a very wide distribution. We have radon levels in all 67 counties, and we have 12 million people. 

I guess the other thing people don’t talk about is schools and other buildings. Most of the testing and most of the calls we get are from homeowners, and it’s usually a real estate transaction. I’m buying, I’m selling. 

But we’re trying to encourage the school districts to do testing in the buildings. They have buildings that are in contact with the soil and the ground. They’ve got kids in there for six or seven hours a day and teachers and staff. So we’d really like to see that.

Bob Lewis is the Radon Program Manager at the DEP.