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20% of Schools Have High Levels of Radon, E.P.A. Finds

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WASHINGTON--Twenty percent of the nation's public schools have at least one classroom contaminated with harmful levels of radon, according to early data from an Environmental Protection Agency survey released at a House subcommittee hearing here last week.

The National School Radon Survey, which was mandated by the Indoor Radon Abatement Act of 1988, will be published in full in May and represents the first "statistically significant'' federal survey of radon levels in public schools, according to an E.P.A. spokesman.

For the study, which was conducted during the 1990-91 school year, E.P.A. researchers placed radon detectors in 917 randomly selected public schools in 48 states.

Based on the study, the agency estimates that 73,000 classrooms in more than 15,000 public schools have radon levels above the federal standard of 4 picocuries per liter of air.

Although schools with radon problems can be found throughout the country, the percentage of schools with unhealthy concentrations varied by region, the study shows.

The problem is worst in the Northeast, where 4.1 percent of the schoolrooms exceeded 4 picocuries per liter. More than 3.1 percent of schools tested in the South, 3 percent in the North Central, and 1.1 percent in the West showed levels exceeding the E.P.A. standard.

Previous E.P.A. surveys showing that 54 percent of schools had unsafe radon levels were not a true indicator of the national problem, an E.P.A. official said, because the samples were small and concentrated in "hot spots'' where the probability of contamination was high.

Schools are "uniquely vulnerable to indoor air pollutants,'' the study says, pointing to chemical contaminants often used in art rooms and science laboratories.

Mandatory Testing Eyed

Also, schools often have inadequate heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems, the report adds.

Radon is an odorless, colorless radioactive gas produced by the decay of uranium in soils. When inhaled, radon can damage lung tissues and increase the risk of lung cancer.

According to the Surgeon General, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, behind smoking, in the United States.

"Parents and teachers should recognize that each school with an elevated radon level poses a serious long-term hazard,'' Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said at the hearing before the Health and Environment Subcommittee last week.

"In over 10,000 schoolrooms nationwide, a teacher or student is receiving more radiation than the average worker in a nuclear power plant,'' Mr. Waxman said. He also said he would introduce legislation this spring to make testing for radon in schools mandatory.

A similar bill won Senate approval last year but failed to reach the House floor.

Unsound Standards?

Some educators hail such legislation as a step in the right direction, while others fear the potential costs.

"The problem in the past is there haven't been any [federal] requirements that schools test for radon,'' said Carolyn Henrich, a lobbyist for the National PTA.

Nearly 20 percent of public schools have already tested for radon and fewer moved to address the problem, according to Margot T. Oge, the director of the E.P.A.'s office of radiation and indoor air.

It would cost $50 million to $500 million to bring the radon level down to an acceptable level in every school, according to the E.P.A.

Some educators have charged the federal government with having "scientifically unsound'' measurements, arguing that the E.P.A.'s toxic threshhold is comparatively low.

Michael Resnick, the associate director of the National School Boards Association, argued that the U.S. threshold is lower than that of many other countries. For all schools to meet the official level would mean a significant expenditure that could better be used for instruction, he said.

"If the [government] decides [radon is] a health risk to children, the money should come out of the federal treasury, not the school district treasury,'' Mr. Resnick said.

The National PTA termed the study's results "alarming,'' and called on the government to help schools pay for radon-control measures.

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