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Radon Could Be A Hidden Threat In Your Home

Realtor Debra Harris had found just what her client wanted.

A duplex on Morgan Street in Throop was remodeled, in move-in condition and at a price she could afford. It checked all her boxes for an investment property. But when the home inspection came back, there was an issue: radon.

A walk through the home wouldn’t show any sign of the odorless, colorless gas that comes from the decay of uranium.

The gas causes lung cancer and is the primary cause of the cancer among people who don’t smoke, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, and most counties in Pennsylvania, are in the EPA’s highest zone for highest potential for unhealthy radon levels.

“She was going to have tenants in there, so she definitely needed that addressed,” Harris said.

The seller wound up installing a radon mitigation system to close the deal. As Harris remembers, it cost about $2,500.

Harris is familiar with radon from her real estate work with Weichert Realtors Hibble & Associates, even if her clients aren’t.

“I find myself explaining it a lot. Even to the seller, they’re just not aware of it,” she said. “I’ll ask the seller, ‘When you bought this, did you have the radon tested?’ And they’ll go, ‘I don’t remember. I have no idea.’”

Radon in water

Pennsylvania’s geology has made it one of the places in the United States where radon can be an issue.

A report published this year by the U.S. Geological Survey looked at groundwater samples collected from 1985 to 2016 in the state and found 87 percent of samples had radon concentrations greater than 300 picocuries per liter, which was a recommendation for a public water supply’s maximum contaminant level previously proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A picocurie is a measure of radiation.

The study found median concentrations greater than 300 picocuries per liter and less than 4,000 picocuries per liter in geological formations in Northeast Pennsylvania. Three hundred picocuries of radon per liter of water was one standard proposed by the EPA for some states. The agency also proposed another standard of 4,000 picocuries per liter for other states.

Brian Oram, an environmental consultant based in Dallas Township, sees a wide range in test results for radon in groundwater.

“I’ve seen concentrations ranging anywhere from a few tenths to well over 4,000 picocuries in a liter. What’s difficult about it is there’s not really a clear drinking water standard. There’s some guidance that suggests if a drinking water standard was set, it would be somewhere between 300 picocuries to 4,000 picocuries. So it’s highly variable,” he said.

The highest median concentration in the state came from the Peters Creek Schist in southeast Pennsylvania.

The report notes that its information, which looks at data from geological formations that stretch over hundreds of miles, has limitations for predicting radon concentrations at a specific site or for advising property owners whether to test for the gas.

Radon in water hasn’t been found to be a major health risk. The risk of cancer from drinking radon with water is low. The main issue comes when it dissolves into the air, giving a small bump to radon levels in the air. The EPA recommends that people do something to deal with radon if the levels in their home are 4 picocuries per liter of air or higher.

The Department of Environmental Protection estimates that 40 percent of the state’s homes have air radon levels above EPA guidelines.

In extreme cases, such as a reading of more than 32,000 picocuries that USGS scientists saw, that could be a significant contributor to the amount of radon in the air.

“For the most part across the state, you’re not going to find something that high,” said Eliza L. Gross, who wrote the USGS study.


The EPA does not regulate radon in drinking water, and DEP doesn’t track it.

Even though it is in the water, the levels aren’t high enough to where DEP sees it as an issue.

“There are no plans at this time to do any monitoring. That’s not to say we won’t in the future, but we don’t plan to at this time,” said DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly.

The agency is focused on radon in the air, and it has a database with thousands of readings from certified radon testers and property owners that is tracked by ZIP code. The agency encourages people to test their homes for radon. If tests show a high level of radon in the air, residents should test other parts of their property, like their water if they use a private or community well and other structures, Connolly said.

In the home

Radon in homes can be found in air and water.

Most radon in indoor air enters a building from soil. Decaying uranium in the soil forms radon gas, which seeps inside and can build to high levels in the indoor air.

Radon in water contributes to the overall amount of radon in indoor air, but it only accounts for about 1 to 2 percent of the total.

For every 10,000 picocuries per liter of radon in water, the radon level in the air increases by about 1 picocurie per liter.

For example, the median reading of 1,665 picocuries of radon per liter of water in the Catskill formation, which includes parts of Luzerne County, would increase the amount of radon in the air by about .17 picocuries. That comes from using the water for things like showering or doing laundry.

About 20,000 people die in the United States each year from breathing radon in indoor air, according to the EPA. The agency estimates that fewer than 200 cancer deaths each year come from radon in drinking water, with most of that total coming from lung cancer and a smaller portion coming from stomach cancer.

The information that comes from testing helps homeowners make decisions about whether to install a mitigation system.

Last week, Oram set up a radon detector in the basement of Terry Eckert’s Dallas Township home. He’ll come back later to check the readings on one device and to collect the other device to send to a laboratory for testing.

Oram sees clients with a range of opinions about radon and other contaminants in their homes. One customer panicked when a reading came back far below the recommended level for taking action and another disregarded a high reading because he felt fine.

“It’s about managing risk,” he said. “My job is to be that balance.”

Finding radon

As a home inspector for Total Inspection Solutions, Bob Petrillo is responsible for checking properties people want to buy to see if they have any problems for prospective tenants.

Petrillo estimates that about one-fourth of the homes he tests have air radon levels that are above the DEP’s recommended maximum average for a home of 4 picocuries per liter. To test for the gas, he plugs in a radon detector on the lowest livable level of the home. If a home has a finished basement or one with a concrete floor, he’ll test there. When he encounters a dirt basement or a space that’s not used, he moves to the first floor.

The detector stays near the floor and measures the amount of radon in the air. If his readings come back high, property owners will consider installing a mitigation system to vent the gas from the house.

The highest level Petrillo has seen is 119.

“And it spiked at over 150 at times,” he said. “Basically, the home owner didn’t even know that it was going on. And it was a finished basement so they were spending time down there.”

Armed with that knowledge, property owners can make a decision about what to do next.

“They had to put a couple different systems in,” he said, “because it was so high.”

Contact the writer:


570-821-2051, @CVBillW

Testing for radon

The Department of Environmental Protection allows people to search for radon data by zip code, but the department also recommends that people test their own homes. People can test for radon themselves with a home kit or hire a professional to measure the gas. Visit www.dep.pa.gov to learn more about radon and testing.

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