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  • Kevin Elliott

Testing for radon in schools not always done

Considered the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, radon gas leaches undetected into millions of basements each year where it is breathed in by unsuspecting occupants. The colorless, odorless, radioactive gas is responsible for about 21,000 deaths each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Because of the danger and risks involved with radon, state law requires any new licensed daycare centers to be tested for radon. Property owners selling a home must disclose any known radon levels, and Michigan's residential building code requires some new homes to be built with some radon resistant features. And while the EPA recommends that public school districts test buildings for radon every five years, there are no federal or state laws requiring schools to conduct tests at all.

Of the 28 public school districts in Oakland County, districts that regularly test for radon or have plans to test for radon, include: Bloomfield Hills Schools, Clawson Public Schools, Ferndale Public Schools, Novi Community Schools, Rochester Community Schools and South Lyon Community Schools.

Some districts – including Birmingham Public Schools, Huron Valley Schools, Troy School District, and Walled Lake Consolidated Schools – have tested for radon in at least one building or more in the past, but don't plan on testing in the future. The remainder of the public school districts in the county said they don't test, while six districts failed to respond to inquiries from Downtown.

"Unfortunately, radon is easy to ignore because there are no short-term side effects," said Aaron Berndt, state radon officer with the Michigan Indoor Radon Program in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

In the long-term, Berndt said radon is responsible for about 600 lung cancer deaths in Michigan per year. A high presence of radon, combined with smoking, greatly increases the chance that a person will develop lung cancer, but about four out of 1,000 non-smokers develop lung cancer when exposed to radon at or above the EPA's recommended action level for radon gas.

Radon gas is measured in units called picoCuries – named after Pierre and Marie Curie – and represent the amount of radioactivity present. The EPA's safety limit for radon is set at four picoCuries per liter of air, or four pCi/L. Statewide, about 26 percent of radon tests have results above four pCi/L, according to Air Check, which has collected results from more than four million radon test kits across the country. In Oakland County, the average amount of radon in buildings is 3.6 pCi/L, with about 27.8 percent of tests collected by Air Check testing above four pCi/L, and about 51.1 percent tested above two pCi/L.

"There's no safe level of radon," Berndt said, "but we won't get to a 'zero' level either. We want to reduce it as much as possible."

Berndt said that because neither the state nor the federal government require radon testing in schools, there is no central repository for test results from schools that test voluntarily.

Results provided to Downtown from districts that maintain radon testing results show few, if any, school facilities tested exhibiting high levels of radon. In some cases, initial test results showed radon levels at or near the EPA's level of concern. In each of those cases, follow-up tests were conducted that showed levels below the EPA's guidelines. With the exception of a handful of districts in the county, few are testing for radon as recommended by federal regulators.

"We don't do a ton of radon testing in the schools," said Phil Grosse, an industrial hygiene consultant with Arch Environmental Group, which has provided testing for many districts in southeast Michigan. "It's not EPA mandated, so as a rule of thumb, we don't do a lot of it. When we do, it's kind of different for each client. If we had our druthers, we would prefer to do testing for a whole building, but we usually end up doing suspect areas.

"Generally, we prefer the EPA recommendations. It's a hard thing, as far as what the schools are willing to do... what ends up happening more often is that they don't see the need for testing."

Marcia Wilkinson, spokeswoman for Birmingham Public Schools, said the district had conducted radon testing in the past under the advisement of the state and its environmental consultant. However, Wilkinson said in May that the district stopped testing several years prior at the direction of its environmental consultant.

"As you are aware (Birmingham Public Schools) is compliant in all areas of environmental regulations – from asbestos and lead paint to required health and safety programs," Arch Environmental CEO Scott Staber said in a June 12 email to the district which Wilkinson shared with Downtown. "Arch Environmental Group has conducted sampling for various Oakland County schools and other schools throughout the state of Michigan only when requested (as it is not required by law). With the numerous environmental regulations mandated on school districts, it is difficult for most districts to conduct recommended (not required) environmental guidelines such as radon sampling. We have conducted sampling in nearby districts with levels that have typically been below the EPA's recommendation action level. The EPA and Michigan DEQ have further information available for school districts on their websites. If you need additional information or would like to pursue radon sampling, please do not hesitate to contact me."

Bloomfield Hills Schools have done various radon testing in recent years, with the latest conducted in 2016. District spokesperson Shira Good said additional testing is planned for this fall.

Brian Goby, who heads up maintenance for the district, said Arch Environmental conducted testing for the district. Those tests included radon testing at Bloomfield Hills High School (previously Andover High School) and the now shuttered Lahser High School. Testing was done at Eastover Elementary School in 2016, with all tests coming back below 1.4 pCi/L. Goby said all schools in the district will be tested this fall.

Lori Grein, director of community relations for Rochester Community Schools, said the district uses a five-year rotational schedule between buildings to test for radon.

In December of 2017, the district relayed test results to parents that it received from its environmental consultant, Nova Environmental, "The most recent surveys were conducted from December 26-29 at Delta Kelly, McGregor, Musson and University Hills Elementary Schools, and Rochester High School... The survey results at Delta Kelly, Musson and University Hills Elementary Schools and Rochester High School indicate all radon samples collected are significantly less than the EPA action level of 4.0 pCi/L. One sample in the boiler room at McGregor Elementary warranted further investigation. After retesting, it was determined that the sample was also below the action level set by the EPA. Nova Environmental, Inc., recommends that no further action is necessary at this time for these buildings."

In Clawson and Ferndale school districts, radon testing hasn't been a regularly scheduled item. However, Jamie Stottlemyer, executive director of operations and transportation for the two districts, said plans are underway for Nova Environmental to conduct testing at both of the districts this summer.

In the South Lyon Community School District, 14 of the district's buildings were tested in 2012 at random locations. Those buildings included seven locations in each of the district's high schools, five locations in each of the middle schools, three locations in each of the elementary schools, two locations in the administration building and early childhood center, and one location in the grounds operations center. In each case, short-term activated charcoal devices were used to measure radon levels.

"During the entire measurement period (typically two to seven days), the absorbed radon undergoes radioactive delay," Arch Environmental wrote in its 2012 report. "Arch Environmental Group deposited the AC detectors on March 22-23, 2012. The detectors were placed between knee and shoulder heights on a flat or hanging surface. Additionally, the detectors were placed at least one foot from exterior walls, three feet from windows or doors, away from direct sunlight and away from heat vents."

The testing also included duplicate test devices, as recommended by the EPA and as is the case in each of Arch Environmental's testing procedures. The results show that all of the samples had concentrations below the EPA's recommended action level of four pCi/L.

The Novi Community School District tests for radon every other calendar year at buildings throughout the district, with the last round of testing conducted in the winter of 2017. Those tests, as shown through results provided to Downtown by the district, were conducted by Arch Environmental. Tests included short-term, activated charcoal devices in seven locations at Novi High School; five locations at Novi Middle School; three locations in each of the elementary schools; three locations in each wing of the Novi Meadows complex; and three locations in the Early Childhood Education Center. Previous sampling at the district included the ESB building, transportation building, maintenance building and community preschool.

"All samples identified radon concentrations below the EPA recommended 'action level' of 4.0 pCi/L," Arch Industrial Hygiene Consultant Phillip Grosse wrote in a report to the district. "One sample, collected in Room 111 at Orchard Hills Elementary School, identified a radon concentration of 3.7 +/- 0.7 pCi/L. Although this level is technically below the 'action level,' the accuracy of the method suggests that the actual concentration may range from 3.0 pCi/L to 4.4 pCi/L.

"Prudent practice recommends that areas where radon levels are potentially above the 'action level' should be retested with a second short-term test to confirm the results of the initial test. A second test above the 'action level' recommends that either progressing to a long-term test of at least 90 days or taking corrective action measures to reduce levels below the 'action level.'"

While some other school districts in the county said they had tested for radon in the past, they didn't provide documentation, nor did they say there were plans for future testing.

The majority of districts that don't test for radon told Downtown that there was little need to conduct such tests, based either on past results or the lack of any such requirement.

Diane Bauman, director of communications for Farmington Public Schools, said the district doesn't do any radon testing. The reasoning, she said, was explained by the district's director of facilities, who she said told her that radon testing is typically done in buildings with basements, and that there are few such buildings in the district. Also, there is no requirement for testing.

However, the EPA and certified radon testers say changes in a building's heating and cooling system, changes around the foundation of a building and other changes in a structure that occur over time may all lead to changes in radon levels at a building.

"Districts are kind of afraid to do what the EPA recommends because they don't want the ramifications down the line," Grosse said. "Ideally, you want to approximate normal conditions in the buildings. Ideally, you're doing it in the winter."

Responses from the majority of school districts, combined with the lack of any requirement to conduct testing, appear to show that while there are some attempts to address the risk of radon in schools, a full understanding of those risks is lacking.

High levels of radon gas can occur in any indoor environment. Further, radon levels may vary from building to building in the same district, and from room to room in each building. Although Oakland County is considered to have a relatively low risk of radon, there may be various hot spots in any area. Ultimately, testing is the only way to determine whether or not radon is below the acton level.

A spokeswoman for Southfield Public Schools said the district hasn't tested for at least 10 years and doesn't have any plans to do so.

In Troy, Superintendent Richard Machesky said the district conducted testing in 2011, prior to his start as superintendent. That testing, which was one of the most comprehensive in the county according to Grosse with Arch Environmental, included testing of all buildings and all rooms recommended by the EPA.

"There was an issue raised in one of the buildings," Machesky said. "The results came back negative across the district, and we haven't done it since. There's been no reason to do it since."

Berkley Schools, Brandon School District, Clarenceville School District, Clarkston School District, Huron Valley Schools, Lake Orion Community Schools, Oxford Community Schools, Royal Oak Schools and West Bloomfield School District all said they do not test for radon, nor have they done so in recent years.

Walled Lake Consolidated Schools spokeswoman Judy Evola said the district did some testing at one of the district's high schools in the past as part of a wider testing program, and no elevated levels of radon were found.

Waterford School District spokeswoman Rhonda Lessel said testing was done at some point in the past across the district, but it wasn't known exactly when. She added that most schools in the district are constructed on slabs that included a vapor barrier. Further, the district has or is in the process of upgrading HVAC systems, which are required to bring in outdoor air into buildings.

The EPA and environmental consultants certified to conduct radon testing specifically recommend districts retest after significant changes to the building structure or HVAC system.

While the risks of radon had been known for decades, the push for increased public education and testing stemmed, in part, from a 1984 incident at the Limerick nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, northwest of Philadelphia. An employee at the plant, Stanley Watras, had set off a radiation monitoring device at the plant. However, there was no radioactive material at the plant when the activity was detected. It was discovered that Watras had been exposed to radon in his home that reached several thousand pCi/L.

Brian Redmond, a professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at Wilkes University, in Pennsylvania, began working with another professor at the time to develop a radon testing program. The incident and subsequent testing programs led to one of the first campaigns to educate the public and test homes for radon.

Recently retired from Wilkes University, Redmond – a native of Detroit who earned his first two degrees in geology from Michigan State University – believes radon testing should be required at all schools.

"People spend a significant amount of time indoors in schools, and not just students, also the teachers and staff. People should know what levels there are, and if they are high, you should do something to bring them into reasonable limits," Redmond said. "Testing conditions should be under closed building conditions, as that would maximize levels. And it could be more important to test in public schools, compared to a house, whether you have a basement or not."

Redmond said to imagine the building as an upended cup that captures gas coming out of the soil. Then imagine placing your hands around the cup to represent common impermeable material surrounding most public buildings (such as parking lots), which in turn expands the catch area of the cup. Likewise, he said changes in ventilation may create a negative air pressure in the lowest floors of the building, which may divert more soil gas inside.

"Any change in construction around the perimeter of a building or in ventilation should probably trigger a new test in radon levels because it will probably make them worse," he said. "And if you don't test, you don't know."

There are two ways to test for radon in schools that the EPA recommends. Short-term testing uses devices that absorb radon over the course of two to 90 days. Short-term measurements may utilize activated charcoal devices, alpha track detectors or other monitors. Long-term testing remains in place for more than 90 days and is usually conducted over the course of an entire school year. The longer-term testing devices give a more accurate representation of radon levels. The EPA recommends that when initial tests are conducted with short-term devices, that a long-term test is conducted when radon levels are at or above four pCi/L.

For buildings that are "slab-on-grade" design, the EPA recommends measuring only frequently occupied rooms in contact with the ground. Rooms above crawlspaces should be tested, as well as all frequently occupied rooms in buildings with basements, and frequently occupied basements rooms. The EPA recommends testing under closed conditions after 12 hours of closure and in colder months when heating and cooling systems are operating normally.

The EPA and other major and international scientific organizations have concluded that radon is a human carcinogen and a serious environmental health problem. Because radon levels may vary from room to room, the EPA recommends schools test all "frequently occupied rooms in contact with the ground," according to the EPA's "Radon Measurement in Schools" guidelines. "Each frequently occupied room that is in contact with the ground should be measured because adjacent rooms can have significantly different levels of radon."

The EPA first began investigating radon in schools in 1988, when a study in Fairfax County, Virginia, was conducted and used to develop initial guidelines. In the subsequent two years, the EPA conducted a nationwide study, which resulted in the action level of 4 pCi/L.

The EPA later conducted a National School Radon Survey, a statistical representation of levels of radon in schools at the national level, but not the state or local level. The results showed a widespread contamination of radon in schools, with nearly one in five schools having at least one frequently occupied room with the ground with short-term radon levels above four pCi/L.

In 1991, the Michigan Indoor Radon Program conducted a survey of radon in Michigan schools. More than 13,000 measurement devices were placed in 288 randomly selected school buildings across the state. About 2.3 percent of the samples at that time exceeded the EPA's guidelines of four pCi/L.

The EPA has also assigned risk categories to each county across the nation, with "Zone 1" counties having the highest potential to test higher than four pCi/L; "Zone 3" the lowest potential; and "Zone 2," between the two zones. The EPA ranks Oakland County as a Zone 2 county, while Macomb and Wayne Counties are Zone 3. Also listed as Zone 2 counties are Lapeer and Genesee counties to the north, and Livingston County to the west. Washtenaw County, to the southwest of Oakland County, is considered one of eight Zone 1 counties.

Radon levels reported to Air Check tend to follow the EPA's zone rankings of radon risk, with Oakland's average of 3.6 pCi/L higher than Wayne (2.5 pCi/L) and Macomb (2.0 pCi/L); and lower than Washtenaw County's average of 4.9 pCi/L.

In 2011, the Ann Arbor News published an investigation of elevated radon levels in the basement of the former police department. The report detailed instances of radon levels as many as seven times the EPA's action level, with tests showing elevated levels from the 1990s when a mitigation system was installed.

Air Check lists the percent of test results above four pCi/L in Washtenaw County to be 37.3 percent, with 60.6 percent above two pCi/L.

Although the ranking system and news reports give an idea of where higher risks may be, the amount of radon exiting the soil depends upon several factors, one of the greatest being geology.

"It all starts with uranium," Redmond said. "It goes through a series of decays and ultimately ends up as lead."

All rocks contain at least a small amount of uranium, typically between one and three parts per million. As the uranium breaks down over millions of years, it decays into radium, which then decays into radon gas. In gas form, radon may be breathed in, where it further continues to decay into polonium, another radioactive decay product, and can damage lung tissue and lead to lung cancer over time. Thus, it's the radioactive decay process that may occur in one's body that ultimately leads to harm.

Radon gas may enter groundwater, become stuck in pockets of gas in the earth's soil, or rise to the surface where it enters the air or buildings through cracks in foundations, drains and other means. Radon levels in outdoor air, indoor air, soil air and groundwater can all be very different, with outdoor air raging from one pCi/L to about 3,000 pCi/L, with an average about one to two pCi/L, according to the United States Geological Survey. Radon in soil air is usually between 200 and 2,000 pCi/L.

While most buildings draw less than one percent of their indoor air from the soil, those with low indoor air pressures, poorly sealed foundations and several entry points for soil air may draw a much higher percentage of air from soil. Even if soil air has only moderate levels of radon, levels inside a building may be high. Water systems also may allow radon to enter a building.

Radon levels may be higher in areas where there are higher concentrations of uranium, such as granite and shale. High levels of radon discovered in Pennsylvania coincide with the uranium-rich Reading Prong formation, while the uranium-rich Ohio Shale formation extends into southern Michigan.

"You can find trace amounts of uranium associated with black shale," Redmond said. "In Pennsylvania, there is the famous Marcellus formation, which they are fracking now for natural gas. Michigan has a similar black shale, Antrim Shale. I never tested for radon in Michigan, but I wouldn't be surprised that in some areas where you have a structure over shale, you could have higher radon levels. I don't think there's any granite in the lower peninsula, but you certainly have black shale."

While state lawmakers have passed laws regarding radon testing for homes in counties with a high risk for radon, as well as daycare facilities, there has been almost no efforts to increase radon testing in schools.

In 2004, former state lawmaker Frank Accavitti Jr., sponsored a bill that would have required radon testing as part of indoor air quality requirements for all public school districts in the state. Under the bill, HB 5560, districts would have been required to submit an annual report on the status of indoor air quality to the superintendent of public instruction. The program would have required inspections at least every five years, starting in 2008. The bill, which failed to be voted out of committee, would also would have required districts to incorporate radon mitigation measures in construction plans in counties with high or moderate radon risk.

While Redmond said he believes schools should be required to test for radon, he said people shouldn't be too alarmed by initial, short-term tests that are at or near four pCi/L.

"The ‘four picoCuries per liter’ is misleading," he said. "Few people know this, but when they were trying to figure out what would be a reasonable level — it wasn't going to be zero because there's always some radon. Outdoor air is about two picoCuries, so they came up with four.

"The problem is that the four limit was originally decided upon in a household under normal conditions, which means it's open in the summer and spring, and closed in the winter, which means you need to monitor for a year, continuously. In the winter, it's going to vary each season. The 'four' is the average annual exposure, but people don't want to wait a year to find the average."

Redmond said initial numbers between four pCi/L and 20 pCi/L aren't high enough that they should cause an immediate panic. However, such figures could be cause for a longer-term test. Further, he said people need to put monitoring results in perspective. For instance, if you discover slightly elevated levels of radon while being a chain smoker at the same time, your risk for lung cancer is greatly increased.

"Don't panic in the short-term," he said. "I remember getting a call from a guy who was concerned that he found 4.1 (picoCuries), but he was chain smoking at the same time. You have to put the risk into perspective." ­

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