Do you know if your child’s school has tested for the invisible gas that is the second leading cause of lung cancer? Few public schools and day care centers have tested for radon, and only a few states require them to. If your child is attending a relatively new school, chances are better that building requirements have included radon-resistant techniques. However, if your child spends the day inside an older building, in most states, it’s more likely that testing has not been done. Is your child being exposed to radon levels at or above recommended action levels? “The only way to know is to test,” says William Angell, a University of Minnesota professor who chairs the World Health Organization’s Radon Prevention and Mitigation Working Group.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that among non-smokers, radon is the main cause of lung cancer, one of the deadliest cancers of all. We don’t necessarily hear about children being diagnosed with lung cancer. Instead, this ailment typically catches up with people in adulthood. And of course, we spend more of our time at home than in school. “Our risk from radon is a cumulative exposure. We carry that risk with us all our lives,” explains Angell. “The critical factor is exposure for students, teachers and staff would be on top of residential exposure. It’s very important to test.” The WHO recommends that testing should take place in homes and schools; then re-testing should occur when there are renovations, and at five year intervals. This is because building conditions can change the quality of the air inside, and because naturally occurring radon can change in the earth under the building.
The EPA not only recommends testing schools for radon, it provides detailed information through its Tools for Schools program. However, responsibility for testing and correction of radon problems seems to fall upon individual state and local governments. Thus, some of the confusion I encountered when I began to ask the question, “If this is important, why aren’t all schools tested?” The mix of answers I received from various experts and leaders seemed to fall into the categories of science, government, economics and politics.
The Environmental Law Institute, which provides information for states looking to strengthen their policies on environmental issues, maintains a database about radon-related legislation. Its database currently includes only a few states with mandatory radon testing for public schools, including Colorado, Florida, Rhode Island and Virginia. It finds radon testing required for day care centers in some states, including Connecticut, Iowa, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, and Rhode Island. An ELI spokesperson cautions that having a law on the books doesn’t guarantee enforcement. Also, the spokesperson clarifies that some other states have creative ways of supporting radon testing, remediation or radon-resistant building techniques, even if it’s not through a legislative mandate. For instance, Minnesota provides funding incentives for schools that do radon testing. Also, this database does not account for individual school districts that may have their own radon policies at the local level. You can navigate the ELI’s website and see its database information for yourself. There is always a chance that a law newly added to the books may not be included in the ELI list.
Among supporters of radon testing for schools is a national environmental health organization called the Healthy Schools Network. Executive Director Claire Barnett says, “We think schools ought to be tested for it.” Yet, Barnett acknowledges that there does not seem to be enough public concern, funding or perception of a need for testing everywhere in the country. Barnett mentions the long list of environmental concerns that her group tries to address in schools nationwide, from lead and pesticides to PCBs in school buildings and much more. She describes the immediacy of those threats, and it is easy to understand why she hears more passionate calls to action from parents about them than about radon.
You may want to confirm what’s happening with laws in your own state regarding radon testing and related guidelines for schools and day cares. You might also want to check directly with your local school to find out what, if anything, is being done. Keep in mind that some radon policies may apply only to newer buildings. Yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, most school buildings are decades old. Here are links to some of the organizations with more detailed information and resources about radon and related topics: World Health Organization, Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Law Institute, Healthy Schools Network, American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.