Radioactive: What you need to know about radon in your home

Earlier this summer, news outlets reported that a home in Hampden Township, Cumberland County, had test results showing radon levels 25 times higher than what is considered safe. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) sent letters to neighboring homes, alerting them to the findings and recommending that they test their homes as well.

While the DEP has not disclosed which neighborhood in Hampden Township tested so high with radon, the odorless, invisible, radioactive gas is prevalent in Pennsylvania, with 40 percent of homes in our state estimated to have elevated radon levels; pockets in Central Pennsylvania are particularly high. Here’s some background provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Pennsylvania’s DEP about the gas, how it gets into our homes, and how we can get it out.

Radioactive invader

Radon is the natural decay of radioactive uranium. The U.S. Surgeon General has warned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States today (only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths). Radon is naturally present in nearly all soils, and rises up through the ground into the air and into our homes through cracks and other holes in the foundation. It then becomes trapped within the home. Radon can also enter a home through well water.

Testing its presence

Through an EPA-funded program, hospitals are giving  parents of newborn children a packet of information which includes a coupon for a free radon test kit from the DEP. Don’t have a newborn? You can purchase a test kit from a Pennsylvania-certified lab, or from a local hardware store or home center.

Test kits are either for short-term testing (for two up to 90 days) or long-term (over 90 days); at the conclusion of either (short-term is best to start with), you’ll need to send the kit to a lab for processing, which typically takes a few days. The amount of radon in the air is measured in picocuries per liter of air― or pCi/L. The EPA advises that a level of 4 pCi/L or higher be treated by radon mitigation professionals. The national average for radon levels in homes is 1.3; in Pennsylvania, it’s 7.1. In some zip codes within our readership, it’s more than double that. No matter where you live, you should know your radon level.

Removing the gas

If your radon test kit results show that you have an elevated level of radon in your home, the DEP advises that you contact a certified radon mitigation contractor. First, if you have well water, they can test that, too (and address, if it does test positive). And then you’ll want them to install a radon mitigation system — in essence, a pipe that goes below the concrete floor and foundation and is attached to a constantly running fan that pulls the radon gas up and out of the home. According to the Pennsylvania EPA website, you can expect to pay a contractor about $1,000 to fix your radon problem, if you have one — about the same cost as any other significant home repair.

For more information about testing and treatments

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

American Lung Association

Cancer in Pennsylvania: Radon Awareness Webinar
The webinar is a joint effort by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, hosted by the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania.

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