The safety of children in schools is of utmost importance. Fire drills, wet-floor cones, lead free paint, asbestos abatement and security guards are common place in today's schools; for a good reason. As you walk up to a school, you will see a sign on the door that states: ‘All visitors must check in at the front desk. Every measure must be taken to keep unwanted guests from our schools. What about a dangerous guest who sneaks in? This guest is unwanted and dangerous. Public, private, charter and home schools are all at risk. You can’t see, hear or smell this invisible threat. What is this invader? It’s radon gas, the naturally occurring, radioactive gas that can enter a school through the foundation. Radon is a proven danger, let’s keep it out of our schools.
Parents, faculty and even students are beginning to urge school districts to start implementing more routine radon measurement practices. Some schools already have radon testing procedures in place while others do not. Each school may vary when it comes to radon gas risk. Some schools are located in zones that have a higher probability for radon than others. Some schools have foundation plans or HVAC systems that can create more potential for radon entry. No matter what the circumstances, any school (or individual classroom) can have elevated radon levels. The only way to know is to perform extensive radon screenings and make sure that the screenings are done right.
We were recently involved in a radon in schools screening. We were contacted to measure radon levels several elementary schools in Utah. We offered a proposal for a thorough radon survey in the schools. Our radon survey included a radon test kit placed in every frequently occupied, ground-contacting room. Along with this were quality assurance procedures including duplicate and blank tests to ensure accuracy of the sample. Another radon measurement “professional” came in with a quote substantially less than ours. When speaking with our client, it became aware that this “professional” quoted a random screening that would use a fraction of the number of test kits that we proposed. The measurement provider claimed that they were using the EPA standards…. Had they read the EPA RADON MEASUREMENT IN SCHOOLS document, they would have known that it says to “take initial measurements using a short-term test. Short-term measurements should be made in all frequently occupied rooms in contact with the ground to provide a quick test of whether or not high radon concentrations are present. All rooms should be tested simultaneously.” You don't want a random screening to miss a potentially dangerous room.
There are several reasons why a thorough screening should be done:
- Radon entry in large school buildings is different from radon in homes. School buildings tend to have complex foundations with many footing sections and combination footprints of concrete slabs, basements and crawlspaces. Each foundation area can have different radon entry behaviors.
- Schools can have complex HVAC systems that can change the radon entry behavior from one room to the next. These systems can be altered when schools are remodeled over time or if there is a damper or programming error. Radon screenings can help find problems with the HVAC system.
- Unlike most homes, schools and large buildings can have extreme radon level swings from one room to the next.
- If a random radon screening is done, a school can be labeled as “safe” yet one or more of the untested rooms may be elevated. Random screenings can also offer false high data causing alarms with parents, faculty and students. Panic can set in and cause the district to jump to radon mitigation when it might not be necessary. Radon mitigation can cost tens of thousands of taxpayer or private funds. (The problem with random screening was proven with our recent situation)
After describing the correct procedures and problems with the other proposal to our client, they immediately decided to move forward with our proposal. We performed a proper radon survey and luckily found that almost every room tested was well below the EPA radon action level. Many tested at < 0.3 pCi/l of radon gas. There were two schools that had rooms that measured high for radon. Two small office rooms in one of the schools tested very high. The district took immediate action and adjusted the HVAC systems in the rooms that tested high. We returned with our Radalink® continuous radon monitors to perform measurements in the rooms that tested high and found that the HVAC adjustments have corrected the problems in those rooms. After this situation, we have to ask ourselves; Had the other “professional” been hired to perform measurements in these schools, would their method of random testing have caught these three out of nearly 200 rooms that tested high for radon? Luckily we found these rooms with our thorough radon measurement service and the school district has made minor changes to make these rooms safer for the occupants.
There are several take-away examples from this situation:
- Don’t be afraid to test for radon in schools and large buildings. Unlike in most homes, often times elevated radon levels can be fixed with a small adjustment to the HVAC system. Homes usually require radon mitigation systems to stop radon gas from being a problem.
- When testing for radon in schools and commercial buildings, test every frequently occupied, ground-contacting room. Offices and classrooms are good rooms to test. Boiler rooms and custodial closets are not a good indication of the air the students, teachers and other staff are breathing.
- Be cautious of who is performing the radon measurements in schools. Use a certified or licensed radon measurement provider. Even when hiring a certified provider, be sure to check that they are using proper protocol.
- Radon screenings in schools and large buildings with forced air ventilation systems should become a standard maintenance procedure for the HVAC system. Something as simple as a damper failure can cause elevated radon levels in one or more rooms. The radon screening will help avoid occupant exposure as well as keep the HVAC system running properly.]
- Initial radon screenings are short term tests to show if there is immediate risk. More follow-up testing can show detailed data to help understand the real radon risk.
Keeping schools safe from radon gas is important. Students and teachers spend a great part of the day in these rooms, breathing the air. Testing for radon in schools is not very difficult or expensive and should become routine in every district across the country. Children and their developing lungs should be breathing the best air possible.