With elevated levels of radon affecting almost half of Pennsylvania homes and being the second leading cause of lung cancer in the state, residents are encouraged now more than ever to have their homes tested for the colorless, odorless, radioactive gas.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reports Pennsylvania is particularly prone to elevated radon levels, with about 40 percent of homes in the state having radon levels at 7 to 8 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) which is above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of four picocuries per liter (pCi/L).
Wally Hanes of Hanes H.C.R., LLC in St. Marys, is DEP-certified in radon mitigation and said 50 percent or higher of homes in the Elk County area have tested positive for radon. He has found readings from as high as 175 pCi/L in Johnsonburg down to 1 pCi/L with levels being elevated north of Elk County toward Kane.
"There's a large spectrum of where everything is falling in," Hanes said. "Anything over 4 pCi/L, we encourage the homeowner to have mitigation done."
He emphasized one house may test positive and the house next door will be fine, with results varying greatly from home to home.
Testing for radon is the only way to know if a home or other structure has elevated levels of radon. DEP recommends testing all homes and public and private buildings. The best time to test is during the cold-weather months, when homes and buildings are closed and radon is most likely to build up to unhealthy levels.
Residents may hire a certified radon testing company, though it is easy to perform a radon test by using a kit that can be purchased at a home improvement store, online, or through a Pennsylvania-certified radon laboratory or certified tester including Mike Gelsick of St. Marys. Kits usually cost under $30. Free kits are available through the DEP's website or the American Lung Association at www.lunginfo.org/freeradonkit, which limited to Pennsylvania residents only.
A majority of kits are charcoal canisters. They should be placed on the lowest level of a home, typically a basement and set at 21 inches above the floor. Hanes emphasized the importance of marking the time and date of when the canister was set out and when it was retrieved. They may be set out for a period of time from 48 hours to 90 days.
Completed test kits should be sent to one of the 11 Pennsylvania-certified testing laboratories, where samples are analyzed. Test results are provided in less than a week. The DEP recommends having homes tested every two years.
If results reveal radon levels above the action level, a radon mitigation system may be necessary.
According to Hanes these systems cost between $1,000 to $1,200 for an average size home and require minimal maintenance. Hanes can install a system within eight hours, which he breaks down into two days, the first for inside work and the second for exterior work.
While there are several mitigation techniques to rid a home of radon, Hanes said he utilizes a vacuum method. After sealing in cracks around the permitter of a home Hanes drills a hole through the basement concrete and installs a plastic pipe and installs an outside fan running 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The pipe is vented out to the roofline and prevents secondary exposure for the gas seeping back through windows when opened during the warm months. The fans Hanes utilizes are built in Pennsylvania and typically run for 15 years and have a five-year warranty, which he said are very cost effective.
After mitigation the home is re-tested within 24 hours as this is the amount of time it takes for radon to break down into lead particles which the test canister is checked for at the lab. Hanes supplies the homeowner with this secondary test.
Hanes explained newer homes are more susceptible for higher radon levels as they are sealed tighter with typical air exchanges occurring once every two hours. Older homes built in the 1950s and 60s have more frequent air exchanges as well as drafts through windows and doors resulting in lower radon levels. New home construction can prevent radon seepage by installing a passive system. The cost of installing the radon system during construction should be less than installing one after the fact.
Hanes noted Pennsylvania is the only state in the surrounding area that does not require homeowners to have testing done when selling their home.
"There are larger cities, mostly south of Interstate 80 including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, that have passed laws requiring homeowners to do this. Around here it is an option," Hanes said.
Among factors which can affect radon levels in homes are local geology, construction materials and how the home was built. Hanes said due to Elk County being heavily undermined poses a red flag for radon as there are large voids underneath the ground filled with the gas. In addition the makeup of the ground underneath homes, whether it consists of rocks or clay or whether basements are damp or dry, does not impact radon levels.
He added there are also cases of radon seeping through water systems, specifically those using well water. In these circumstances mitigation entails an in-depth process using a large aerating system
"I have been doing this for four years and I haven't ran into it yet, but it does happen," Hanes said.
Radon occurs naturally through the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. It is lighter than air and can seep into homes through cracks in basements and foundations and can build up inside to concentrations many times the recommended level.
"It's a phenomena that runs across the U.S.," Hanes said as high radon levels have been found in every state.
Hanes has mitigated homes throughout the area including those in Coudersport, Warren, Brockway, DuBois, Clearfield and Frenchville. He has worked closely with Gelsick over the past four years that both have been in business.
With January marking National Radon Action Month, residents should take action as radon causes about 20,000 lung-cancer deaths in the United States every year, according to the DEP.
“Don’t allow your home or family to become a statistic," Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Chris Abruzzo said.
For more information about radon, including information on interpreting test results and finding a Pennsylvania-certified radon contractor, tester and mitigator, visit www.dep.state.pa.us or call 1-800-23-RADON.