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Radon levels high in Cumberland County

By Naomi Creason, Sentinel Reporter |

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There are a number of concerns when buying or owning a home, but the Department of Environmental Protection is hoping homeowners pay attention to a specific odorless and radioactive gas - radon.

Bob Lewis, the program manager for DEP's Radon Division, finds that most people don't really think of radon, even though Pennsylvania residents should worry about the levels in their home.

"Pennsylvania could be one of the worst states in the country," Lewis said. "There's a handful of states that show high levels of radon, and we're up there. I think about 49 of the 67 counties in the state are EPA zoned 1 counties. It's just a characteristic of our geography. It's easy for gas to migrate through the ground."

The Environmental Protection Agency splits the country into three zones of radon levels, with Zone 1 being the highest and Zone 3 having the lowest levels. Pennsylvania just happens to find itself in a Zone 1 hotspot, where levels of radon are most often above the acceptable limit. Though not all of Pennsylvania is Zone 1, the entire region of Central Pennsylvania is.

It's a statistic that requires some work on the part of homeowners if they want to avoid being at risk for lung cancer.


Radon is a gas that rises from the soil. Outside, radon levels are low - .3 - so no one really has to worry about the risk being outside. However, radon can build up in enclosed spaces, such as homes, and increase the level of indoor radon to dangerous levels.

When there is an overabundance of radon in the air, it can have an adverse effect on a resident's body. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and the leading cause in non-smokers. Radon is expected to be the cause of 20,000 lung cancer deaths every year, according to the DEP.

"Radon affects the lungs," Lewis said. "Because it's a gas, you breathe it in. The particles lodge on the lining tissue in the tracheal/bronchial part of the lung, and those particles are radioactive. It gives off radioactive emissions in the lung, which affects the DNA."

There isn't a set exposure level of radon that means all residents will get lung cancer. Those who smoke are much more likely to get lung cancer when being additionally exposed to radon, while it could be hit-and-miss for non-smokers who live in homes with high levels of radon, especially depending on how long a person has lived in that home.

Jim Hetrick, however, doesn't believe in leaving that up to chance.

Hetrick owns Hetrick Construction and HomeSafe Radon based out of East Pennsboro Township, and for more than a decade, he has tested and installed radon mitigation systems to help keep the levels down in homes. The EPA suggests action be taken if levels reach 4, but Hetrick has seen much higher numbers in area houses.

"In one home we started out at 175," Hetrick said. "175 is unusual. I have gone into homes where they've said they tested it and the radon levels were 300, but the highest one I've mitigated was 175. Generally speaking, 20 is about average."

Twenty, however, is five times too high for the safe level of radon suggested by the EPA - a number that some argue should be lower. According to the EPA, of 1,000 residents in a home with radon at 20 pCi/L (picocuries per liter), about 260 smokers will get lung cancer and about 36 non-smokers will get lung cancer.

While those numbers can be frightening, they can be fixed. And for homebuyers in Cumberland County, Hetrick noted that the high numbers shouldn't scare them away. The numbers can always be lowered to safer levels, sometimes more easily than the homes with low numbers to start.

"The levels primarily drop down into one or below in most cases," Hetrick said. "It really doesn't depend on what level you start out at. In one home, we started out at 175 and got it all the way down to .3. There are areas with more clay and tighter soil where there are lower concentrations of radon. It's not only hard for us to dig through but it's hard for radon to get through. But it's also hard to get from 7 down back to 4. While it's easier for radon to get through shale-y ground, it's also much easier to pull it down from 175 to below one. I wouldn't let the area affect homebuyers."

Hetrick himself lives in East Pennsboro Township near Wertzville Road, and that area is prone to higher levels of radon because of the shale in the ground. Hetrick's work was enough to convince his neighbor Scott Arentz to test his house for radon.

"It was just scary," Arentz said. "It was several times above the normal level - on what would be the acceptable limit. I think it was around 70. It was very high."

Arentz, his wife and three children had lived there for five years before they tested it, and he was set on making sure he did something about lowering that number.

"Getting the system wasn't even a question," he said. "Why would I not do that as a parent?"

Hetrick installed the mitigation system for his neighbor three to four years ago, and since then, all Arentz has had to do was periodic radon testing to make sure everything is working properly.

"There really isn't much to do once it's in," Arentz said. "It has an easy identification light to make sure it's working. I don't think anyone would even know where it was unless you pointed it out."

Mitigation System

Arentz's mitigation system is located in his basement, where a pipe is placed in the ground and snaked to the outside. It's a common system for those installing radon mitigation systems into existing houses.

"Most of the jobs we do in the area are called sub-slap depressurization systems," Hetrick said. "We're basically drilling a hole through the concrete floor and removing five gallons of material - stone and dirt. That gives us a pocket where we will force air out of from under the slab. We pipe it to a fan, which can be outside of the home or in an attic crawlspace or above the garage. It vents the air out or at least away from the windows if the fan is outside. Radon is a noble gas, so once it gets outside it will keep rising, much like helium."

Also important to the mitigation system is the balance of pressure and suction to make sure the radon lingering in the basement moves its way out of the house.

"When we pull air out of the slab, it creates low pressure under the slab," Hetrick said. "It has to be sealed in, otherwise it ends up pulling air from the basement. We want to get it from under the slab and not the basement air. It causes a high pressure in the basement. It's a natural barrier of pressure holding back any air trying to come up. Without suction on the slab, the radon will find a way through a little crack."

Hetrick noted that the mitigation system works best when there is crushed stone under the basement floor, which often is the case in new homes given that some municipalities require that in new home construction.

Since Hetrick is also in home construction himself, he also works with installing a passive system, which can be installed during the build. It does much of the same as a depressurization system but can be hidden behind insulation and dry wall since it will be installed during construction.

Either system is rather low-maintenance, according to Hetrick, and fans are guaranteed for five years and often last 10 to 15 years. A gauge on the tubing will tell homeowners when suction is low and when the fan should be changed.

In Lewis' mind, it's not a lot of work for an important prevention measure.

"The best possible thing you can do is test your house," he said. "It's so easy to do. You can get a test kit that costs $25 or $30 from a home center and test your house. We generally test in the basement, so you get the worst case scenario number. People don't realize they could test for it. I've been doing this for 25 years, and that seems to be the biggest misconception."

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Posted in Local on Monday, January 30, 2012 7:00 am Updated: 11:27 am. | Tags: Radon, Radon Mitigation System, Homeowners, Radon Action Awareness Month, Dep, Department Of Environmental Protection, Epa, Environmental Protection Agency, Jim Hetrick, Hetrick Construction And Home Safe, East Pennsboro Township, Enola, Bob Lewis, Pennsylvania, Radon Levels, Lung Cancer, Radon Test Kit,

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