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The Strange But True Story of The World’s Most Radioactive House

Radon contaminationIn 1984, Stanley Watras was a civil engineer working on construction of the Limerick, PA nuclear power plant. Although the plant had no radioactive materials in it at the time, Stanley somehow managed to set off radiation detectors on his way out of the job site. At first, it was funny because it made no sense. No one could figure out why the alarms went only when Stanley when through the detectors, until the day they had him walk through a detector on his way INTO the plant. Suddenly, it became apparent Stanley was bringing the radiation in with him, not taking it out with him.

How Does 455,000 Chest X-Rays Every Year Sound?

Radiation levels due to radonA test showed every part of Mr. Watras was contaminated by radiation. The only possible cause was his house in nearby Boyertown. Concerned over that possibility, specialists were sent in to test the house for radiation. When the tests showed the home had an average level of 2,700 picocuries per liter, the equivalent of getting 455,000 X-rays per year, Stanley moved his family to a motel, and later to a rented house. This was the highest level of indoor radon ever documented in the United States—a record that stands to this day. It was also the first time radon crossed the consciousness of the American public.

For the next several months, the EPA used the house as a test lab for developing radon mitigation techniques. They brought in an environmental engineering firm, but after several attempts at sealing the basement floor and walls showed virtually no reduction in radon levels, they realized they were going to have to see what was under the cement floor of the home’s basement. They concrete floor was jackhammered away, exposing a massive yellow-tinted rock formation of highly radioactive uranium. Mystery solved.

The World's First Radon Mitigation System

After finding the source of the radiation, the next step was figuring out a way to mitigate the radon levels. Several inches of the Radon gas comes from uranium in the ground.uranium ore under the basement floor were jackhammered and removed. Workers then laid perforated plastic pipe and covered it with crushed stones. Next, fiberboard was put over the layer of stones, then radon-barrier sheeting, then a layer of sand, followed by 4 inches of reinforced concrete. The key to the system was an exhaust pipe connected to the perforated pipe. This exhaust pipe went up through the roof and had a fan connected to it in order to suck the radon gas out of the soil. Subsequent tests showed radon levels in the home had decreased to 10 pCi/L.

Radon Levels Can Vary Dramatically From House to House

Interestingly, while the Watras’ house had the highest levels of radon ever documented, the house next door had no detectable radon. It’s the same situation with radon in Wisconsin. We’ve come across many situations where a house we test shows high radon levels, so a neighbor decides to have his house tested, too. Even though the houses are right next door, test results on the neighbor’s house show radon levels below. So, if your neighbor or someone else in the vicinity has a radon test that shows very low radon levels, you cannot assume your house has similarly low radon levels. 

Moral of The Story: Get A Radon Test

Much to his amazement, Stanley Watras and his family are all still alive and well to this day (2016). However, many others are not. Thousands of non-smokers have been diagnosed with lung cancer, with the only commonality being they all lived in houses with high radon levels. In fact, radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer deaths—second only to smoking.

Radon is a radioactive gas that cannot detected by any of our senses. The only way to know how much radon is in your home is to have a radon test performed. Lifetime Radon Solutions serves all of southeast Wisconsin with professional, licensed radon testing and mitigation system installations.

Testing a home requires only that you allow our technician into your home to place two electronic test units in your basement. After 48 hours, the technician will return to get the devices and review the data they collect. In most cases, you will have the results of your test that day. If you have high radon levels, we’ll explain what’s involved in having a radon mitigation system installed.