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Smart Talk is a daily, live, interactive program featuring conversations with newsmakers and experts in a variety of fields and exploring a wide range of issues and ideas, including the economy, politics, health care, education, culture, and the environment.  Smart Talk airs live every week day at 9 a.m. on WITF’s 89.5 and 93.3.

Listen to Smart Talk live online from 9-10 a.m. weekdays and at 7 p.m. (Repeat of 9 a.m. program)

Host: Scott LaMar

Radio Smart Talk: Radon can be a silent killer; Local program encourages parents to get more involved

Written by Scott LaMar, Smart Talk Host/Executive Producer | Jan 14, 2013 8:33 AM

Radio Smart Talk for Monday, January 14:

radon map 300 x 170.png

Some 20,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer related to exposure to radon gas according to the American Cancer Society.  It is second only to smoking as a cause of lung cancer.  However, radon is a danger we don't hear about too often.  Maybe it's because there are so many other health threats we face every day or that radon is an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas we can't see.

The Department of Environmental Protection esimates that almost half of Pennsylvania homes are affected by radon.

As a result, DEP is encouraging homeowners to get their homes tested for radon and if levels are above recommendations, take steps to fix the problem.

Monday's Radio Smart Talk will focus on radon -- what it is, how to test for it and what to do if radon levels are too high.

Our guests will be Robert Lewis, Program Manager of the Bureau of Radiation Protection with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Kevin Stewart, Director of Environmental Health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.

Also, Patricia Robinson is a substitute teacher at Central Dauphin High School, who started a program to promote responsibility for young women and encourage parents to get involved in their children's lives.  She'll appear on the show to describe the EPIC program.  


Kevin Stewart, with the American Lung Association of Mid-Atlantic, talks about the dangers of radon.


Robert Lewis, with the state Department of Environmental Protection, discusses how often homeowners should test for radon. 


Patricia Robinson talks about the EPIC program and how to get parents more involved in their children's education.

Listen to the program:


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  • Roger & Mary Kay img 2013-01-14 09:15

    We've had our home checked for Radon about 10 years ago and it was negative. Should we check it again? We live in central Adams County. What is the accuracy of the tests and the error rate?


    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 12:16

      Hello Roger & Mary Kay,

      This was addressed on the air, but I thought you should know the official language in the Citizen's Guide to Radon is "If your living patterns change and you begin occupying a lower level of your home (such as a basement) you should retest your home on that level. Even if your test result is below 4 pCi/L, you may want to test again sometime in the future."
      However, if someone already has a radon mitigation system installed then according to the Consumer's Guide to Radon Reduction, "It is a good idea to retest your home at least every two years to be sure radon levels remain low."
      Finally, since test results must be within 25% of the correct value, and testing labs in Pennsylvania are subject to blind evaluations, testing labs make efforts to achieve even greater accuracy, within the limits of randomness of radioactive decay, in order to maintain their PA DEP certification. More important, it is critical to understand that the correct classification (true negative / true positive) is estimated to occur 98.5% of the time when people follow the prescribed protocols. In any case, additional testing can provide more confidence about long term average exposures since radon levels have some natural variability from day to day, week to week, season to season.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2013-01-14 09:19

    E-mail from Kathy:

    "Is radon only a concern in basements? Our house is partly on a concrete slab, and partly over a crawl space."

    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 12:22

      Hello Kathy,

      No, radon is not only a concern in basements. Although radon typically enters the house from rocks and soil near the foundation and under the house, air movement throughout the house can carry radon into all floors of the house.
      Radon concentration on upper floors can be as little as one-tenth of basement levels but may be nearly equal to them if there is a lot of air mixing in the house. A typical average value for a main floor is about 50% of the basement level.
      In any case, no matter the house design, the only way to learn what radon levels you may be exposed to is to perform a radon test.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2013-01-14 09:23

    E-mail from Manuel:

    "As more and more people vent radon into the outdoor atmosphere, what are the risks of raised radon outside?"

    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 12:30

      Hello Manuel,

      As addressed on the air, radon is diluted so much in outdoor air that concentrations there are usually quite low. Two additional points:
      - Remember that radon is normally being released by the soil into the atmosphere, so subslab suction systems do not really add significantly to those amounts.
      - However, everyone is advised not to breathe the exhaust from radon mitigation systems or to allow those gases to enter the building through windows or other openings. Radon concentrations in those exhaust streams can be quite high. That's why the exhaust point is properly located above the roof line.

  • ted img 2013-01-14 09:36

    What about a dirt floor basements in older (ie. Civil War era) homes. When we purchased our house 2006 the inspector tested from the first floor because the basement had a dirt floor. The test came back negative. I am prepared to retest. Should I test in the basement? Does the dirt floor increase the possibility of radon and if we discover the presence of radon in the basement how will the radon mitigation handle the dirt floor?

    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 12:39

      Hello Ted,

      I know we addressed some of your questions on the air, and I will defer to Bob Lewis if he has anything to add with respect to mitigation.
      In Pennsylvania, the guidance for occupied homes is to test in the lowest lived-IN level of the home, which would probably NOT be a dirt-floor basement. Even in real estate transactions, the guidance is for testing to be performed in the lowest livABLE area of the house, which could be an unoccupied basement, but generally, dirt-floor areas are not properly considered to be livable.
      Also, as Bob mentioned, the variability among buildings is very great, so although a dirt floor arguably provides more pathways for radon to enter a building, it is quite possible for such buildings to have low radon concentrations. Again, the only way to know is to test.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2013-01-14 09:37

    E-mail from Mike:

    "I have a 150 yr. old house with a dirt floor basement. How would one mitigate for radon if there is no slab?

    I tested a few years ago and it was less than 1 picocurie."

    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 12:45

      Hello Mike,

      As Bob mentioned, if mitigation were necessary -- as seems unlikely in your case -- it would probably involve one of two methods:
      - The installation of subslab suction system under a newly installed basement slab.
      - The installation of plastic sheeting as a vapor barrier.
      Anyone with questions about mitigation should call the PA DEP Radon Division at 1-800-237-2366 or visit and follow the first link at the keyword radon.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2013-01-14 09:37

    E-mail from Amy:

    "We have a radon system in our home - does it hurt to open underground basement windows? Is the air at the ground level high in radon? Or is it okay to air out?"

    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 12:59

      Hello Amy,

      We discussed your question on the air, but I thought I would go into a little more detail here since not all "open windows" create the same result:
      - In general, opening basement windows, especially if this establishes "cross-ventilation," a flow of air across the basement (in one side of the house and out the other), helps to reduce radon levels in the house. However, having a window open only on the downwind side of the house can actually help to draw radon into the house from the rocks and soil under the house.
      - Occasional "airing out" of the basement should not be a problem, but bear in mind that doing so on a regular basis may mean that an active (fan-driven) radon mitigation system may be producing little added benefit during those times.
      - It is true that radon levels exactly at ground level tend to be higher that at a point a yard or two above ground level, but if you have lots of outdoor air flowing into a window at ground level, much of that air will be taken from points well above ground level.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2013-01-14 09:48

    E-mail from Peter:

    "Is it true that the Marcellus formation can be a source rock for radon?"

    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 13:14

      Hello Peter,

      Although we do know that radon being generated underground can find its way into the natural gas being produced during hydraulic fracturing extraction of the Marcellus formation, the real questions here are "How much?" specifically, "How much are Marcellus workers and end-use consumers being exposed to?" and furthermore, "What are the expected risks, taking into consideration the episodic nature of these exposures, and for in-home use, the time-delay between extraction and end-use, and the distribution of radon introduced into the home via natural gas-burning equipment?"
      There are some preliminary studies that present somewhat conflicting conclusions. The American Lung Association in Pennsylvania's position is that more research, including widespread actual measurements in several scenarios by independent third parties, could provide better information here to support responsible decision-making.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2013-01-14 09:56

    E-mail from Jim:

    "We installed a subslab mitigation system. Later we installed a french drain system b/c of flooding. The french drain system disrupted the radon mitigation system (no suction is able to be achieved). How best to address this situation?


    If you remove yourself from the radon exposure does your lung cancer risk diminish or stay the same?"

    • Kevin Stewart img 2013-01-14 13:27

      Hello Jim,

      I will defer to PA DEP to address the first part of your question, but I will respond to the second part:
      - First, let me underscore that we are all subject to some amount of radon exposure, and that there is no confirmed "safe level" of exposure.
      - However, we do understand some things about lung cancer:
      * It is a long-latency-period cancer, meaning that decades may pass between initial exposures to a hazard and the eventual appearance of the cancer.
      * Likewise, just as with cigarette smoking, once the major radon exposure is stopped, the risk of lung cancer does begin to reduce, significantly in the early years, but still quite slowly over time. Someone's lung cancer risk starts to approach -- but never equals -- the risk of a person who has never been exposed to high concentrations of radon after decades, if that person has not contracted the disease by that time.