Iowa lacks guidelines to track radon in schools

Testing for dangerous gas is costly

There are four radon fans like this one on the roof that which drain air from below the concrete floo at the of the new
There are four radon fans like this one on the roof that which drain air from below the concrete floo at the of the new Cedar Rapids Community Schools Educational Leadership and Support Centein Edgewood Road NW. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Look both ways before you cross the street. Tell a teacher if someone bullies you. Sit quietly while you ride the bus. There’s a long list of warnings out there to help kids protect themselves from potential school dangers.

One that is far less common is, “Be careful, you might be inhaling radon.” After all, how do you protect people from something that has no smell, color or taste?

“It’s a gas that’s going to take the route of least resistance,” said Dr. Chuck Lynch, a professor in the department of epidemiology in the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.

The Environmental Protection Agency has classified all 99 of Iowa’s counties in Zone 1, meaning they have the highest potential for indoor radon concentrations above 4 picocuries per liter, even though the agency maintains that “there is no known safe level of exposure to radon.”

Iowa is only one of two states composed entirely of Zone 1 counties and, according to the Iowa Radon Survey, 71.6 percent of Iowa homes have radon levels above 4 pCi/L.

“There’s no doubt that radon is a problem in Iowa. It’s the air. It’s all around us,” Lynch said, narrowing his scope specifically to homes.

Johnson, Muscatine and Shelby counties as well as the cities of North Liberty, Iowa City, Harlan, Muscatine, Coralville and Shelby have adopted radon-resistant new construction codes to make sure new homes are radon safe. The state also mandates that owners of Iowa’s child-care facilities test for radon every other year, but there is no statute on the books for K-12 schools regarding radon screening or mitigation.

Lynch, a member of the Iowa Radon Coalition, would like to see that changed.

“If I were a parent and my child was exposed to a carcinogen in schools, I’d like them to do something about it,” he said.

No guidelines

Radon exposure is the second-leading cause of lung cancer and the first among nonsmokers, with the gas being responsible for 400 lung cancer deaths in Iowa. Students and staff often spend more time in school than anywhere else except their homes, so if high levels of the gas are present, it can create a serious potential health threat.

“I think we’ve always stood by the recommendation that schools are a good place to test,” said Mindy Uhle, a community health consultant for the Iowa Department of Public Health, which has a program devoted to radon awareness but does not have guidelines regarding radon monitoring in K-12 buildings, , nor does the department specifically track school district radon testing data.

The department received $260,000 from the EPA for radon-related work, including $30,000 which went to county departments for local programming, Uhle said. Mini grants allow local departments to provide money for districts to do long-term radon testing.

In the schools

In 1989 and 1990, following encouragement from the Iowa Department of Public Health, a number of school districts tested their buildings for radon, including the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

Wright and Kenwood elementary schools in Cedar Rapids both had crawl spaces that tested at “borderline” for the 4 pCi/L threshold and subsequent repairs were made to mitigate the threat, according to Buildings and Grounds Manager Rob Kleinsmith. Since then, the district has not pursued any additional testing, citing the lack of a state mandate as a reason.“The way we’ve been informed is once it’s been tested, radon typically does not show back up,” Kleinsmith said. “If it’s not present, it’s not present.”

The Iowa City district performed 535 radon tests and 38 showed levels above 4 pCi/L. Mitigation efforts and additional testing took place in 1991, but no additional districtwide screening has occurred since, though the district will complete the latest round of day-care facility testing this year. (Story continues below photo)

For some districts, radon simply isn’t on the radar.

“I would honestly say in the scope of all the things we’re focused on, it wasn’t high on my list,” said Dani Trimble, superintendent of the Alburnett school district, who said the schools were tested “a long time ago.”

Costly tests

With costs ranging from $500 to $1,500 for testing and $3,000 to $30,000 for mitigation for an average school building, the money for radon testing can’t exactly be found in the school districts’ couch cushions. That’s the main reason why Galen Howsare, deputy executive director and chief financial officer for the Iowa Association of School Boards, geared up to fight a proposed bill during the last legislative session that would’ve required radon testing for Iowa school districts.

“We’re thinking there’s a lot of other things that should be done instead of mandating that additional cost,” said Howsare. “If the state thought every school should be testing, they should in fact do that testing and pay for that if that’s a public concern.”

Howsare is not against districts opting to test for radon; however, he feels it should be a local decision as opposed to one made in Des Moines for all. That proposed bill died before legislators could debate it.

Grant proposal

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, may potentially be able to bridge the gap. He recently unveiled the End Radon in Schools Act, penned with help from the American Cancer Society and the Radon Coalition. If passed, the act would provide grant funding for states to aid school districts in testing for radon and mitigating high levels if present.

Trimble said finances are not the reason why Alburnett schools don’t regularly test for radon, but potential grant dollars “would certainly make a difference. Kleinsmith said he would also be open to the funds for the Cedar Rapids district, which has no board policy regarding radon testing.

Radon facts

  •  It’s natural: Radon is a naturally occurring colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that causes lung cancer. Radon is released when uranium from rocks and soil decays.
  •  Iowa is ground zero: The Environmental Protection Agency classifies all 99 of Iowa’s counties as Zone 1, meaning they “have a predicted average indoor radon screening level greater than 4 picocuries per liter,” which is the federal threshold exposure to radon.
  •  Deaths from randon-caused lung cancer: The EPA estimates that 21,000 people in the United States die annually from radon-caused lung cancer. Dr. Chuck Lynch, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health said 400 lung cancer deaths in Iowa each year are the result of radon exposure. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in Iowa.
  •  No laws for K-12: Currently, there is no statute on the books mandating radon testing or mitigation for K-12 schools in Iowa.

  • Child care centers in Iowa must test for radon within one year of initial licensing or renewal and every two years following the initial testing, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
  •  The End Radon in Schools Act: Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, recently introduced a piece of legislation called the End Radon in Schools Act, which would provide funding for schools to test for and mitigate high levels of radon in school buildings. He built the legislation with support from the American Cancer Society and the Radon Coalition.

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