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Radioactive radon permeates Western Pennsylvania homes

| Monday, Jan. 26, 2015, 12:16 a.m.
Dan Howard sets up a radon detector in a house he is testing in Allegheny Township on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Dan Howard sets up a radon detector in a house he is testing in Allegheny Township on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
Dan Howard sets up a radon detector in a house he is testing in Allegheny Township on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Dan Howard sets up a radon detector in a house he is testing in Allegheny Township on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
A radon detector sits on a chair in a house that is being tested in Allegheny Township on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
A radon detector sits on a chair in a house that is being tested in Allegheny Township on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in America, and Western Pennsylvania has one of the highest rates of the radioactive gas in the country.

Radon is undetectable in homes, unless a test is done to discover it, according to Dan Howard, owner of Dan Howard Home Inspections.“It's odorless, tasteless, you cannot see it, feel it or anything,” said Howard of Allegheny Township. “Our area has one of the highest failure rates in the country at 58 percent.

“Nationally, you have a 15 percent failure rate.”

Radon causes between 15,000 and 22,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.

According to the federal Department of Environmental Protection, 53 of the state's 67 counties fall into the DEP's most dangerous category for radon exposure.

Those alarming numbers are why January is Radon Action Month in the state.

“It isn't that radon is smart and burrows its way into our houses,” Howard said. “Our houses are (like) chimneys.

“They suck the gases underneath your soil in to your house.”

Howard said that a house right across the street from yours could have totally different radon readings.

“It's not predictable,” he said. “Our geology is completely different.

“Most areas of the country are homogenous. But the things that make our area so beautiful — the rivers, valleys and hills — make it harder to pinpoint where radon will be found.”

Howard said that the Marcellus shale just adds to the problem.

“The Marcellus shale deposits are in what used to be ocean beds,” he said of the great seas that were once part of Western Pennsylvania, millions of years ago. “Uranium would settle at the bottom of the old ocean beds.

“When uranium decays, it creates radon.”

Howard said humans have helped radon escape those ocean beds from millions of years ago.

“Indoor french drains tend to make it worse,” he said. “Changing the windows and doors in your house, adding on an addition, changing the heating system: These could change the radon levels in your home.”

The DEP recommends that a home be inspected for radon every three years. A list of state-certified radon inspectors can be found at www.dep.state.pa.us.

Howard said radon problems in homes are usually fixable.

“It's a solvable issue,” he said. “To make the radon go away, since your house is sucking it up like a vacuum, we put a hole in the floor.”

“We hook a pipe up to the hole and use an exterior exhaust fan to blow the air out.”

Howard said systems to remove radon cost between $800 and $1,200. Having a test done usually costs about $140, although homeowners can get a kit from DEP and do their own test, which the DEP analyzes.

Howard said he thinks that's a small price to pay for the one's health.

“It's the second leading cause of lung cancer — and it's totally preventable,” he said.

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media.

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