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January 03, 2023

Many Pennsylvania homes have high radon levels; here's how to detect the dangerous gas

State-certified contractors can be hired to test for the colorless and odorless carcinogen. Homeowners also can purchase DIY kits

Prevention Radon
Radon Gas Test Gere Goble/Telegraph-Forum / USA TODAY NETWORK

To test for radon, a naturally-occurring gas known to cause lung cancer, homeowners can hire a state-certified contractor, or purchase a do-it-yourself kit.

Pennsylvania has some of the highest radon levels in the United States. 

Dangerous levels of the radioactive gas have been detected in 39% of Pennsylvania homes tested, according to the American Lung Association's latest lung cancer report, which details a wide range of lung cancer data, including risk factors, for each state.

Radon, an odorless, invisible gas that is naturally emitted from the ground, is the second leading cause of lung cancer, behind smoking. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that it causes more than 20,000 deaths each year.

Across much of Pennsylvania, including the suburban Philadelphia counties, radon levels are generally so high that mitigation efforts are recommended. High radon levels are the least likely in Philadelphia. 

The gas is not as prevalent in New Jersey, where dangerous levels have been detected in 10% of homes tested, according to the American Lung Association. 

Why is radon so dangerous?

Radon can be found across the country. There is alway some radon in the air, but high levels and constant exposure – like people might have in their homes – increases the risk of lung cancer. When people inhale radon, gas particles get trapped in their lungs. As these particles decay, they release small bursts of radiation into the lungs. Over time, this can damage lung tissue and cause cancer, research shows. 

Because radon gas is colorless and odorless, it is difficult to detect without proper testing. Radon can leak into a home through cracks in the foundation, basement walls, floors and other openings, potentially reaching high levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends mitigation efforts when levels reach or exceed 4 picoCuries per liter, or pCi/L. But the EPA and the American Lung Association say mitigation also should be considered if radon levels are greater than 2 pCi/L.

Testing your home

State-certified contractors can be hired test a home for radon. Do-it-yourself kits, which are inexpensive and easy to use, are another option. When using a DIY kit, place it in the basement, where gas levels are often the highest, or the ground floor for the most accurate results.

Homes with high radon levels should have a mitigation system installed by a professional. The system includes a vent pipe and fan and involves sealing up any cracks in the building. Once in place, the system collects radon from underneath the foundation and vents it outside the home. State departments of environmental protection make lists of certified mitigation professionals available.

Radon laws in Pennsylvania and New Jersey

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, home sellers are legally required to provide buyers with the results of any radon testing, and information on any remediation efforts, at the time of contract of sale. But landlords are not required disclose this information to tenants. 

Both states recommend that homeowners test their homes for radon, though it is not required. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection advises that homes be tested for radon every five years, but if the home has been previously mitigated, testing should occur every two years. Any time the home has been renovated or a new addition is added, levels also should be tested.

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