Reilly's recommendation came after a preliminary EPA study found that 19 percent of the schools it tested included at least one room where readings exceeded the "action level'' of four picocuries of radon per liter of air, the equivalent of smoking about four cigarettes a day. One school in the test reported a rate 25 times the action level--an amount equal to having more than 10,000 chest X-rays a year. At this level of exposure, the EPA estimates that about 35 of 100 people would eventually develop lung cancer caused by radon gas.
Thomas Hatfield, an environmental specialist at the Nashville Public Schools, was made aware of the problem in that city's schools when the EPA study found concentrations of radon in one area classroom equivalent to smoking 17 packs of cigarettes a day. Fortunately, it's often easy to eliminate the risk by sealing air leaks and improving ventilation. In this case, it proved relatively simple to mitigate the gas, which was entering primarily through open plumbing protrusions. Hatfield now advocates that every school "test, test, test'' for radon, with emphasis on testing rooms at or below ground level. "Once you know how to deal with the problem,'' he says, "it's not that difficult.''
Addressing radon contamination often is easier and less expensive than dealing with many other environmental hazards, but testing can be costly. Hatfield found that radon tests for his Nashville schools ranged from $8 to $20 per room, and venting to reduce unsafe levels ran from $100 to $10,000 per room, depending on the construction of the building.
Unlike many other hazards, radon contamination levels vary largely with regional geology. High radon levels often show up in sites with lots of bedrock or phosphate, although no area is free from risk. Of course, man-made variables, particularly ventilation systems, also influence radon readings. Mary Culler of the EPA points out that levels can be reduced by making sure air-flow systems are working properly. Teachers should open classroom windows whenever possible, but that's not a year-round solution or an option for schools with sealed windows.
The best thing teachers can do is urge their districts to test. "If districts haven't tested, teachers should certainly ask why not,'' says Packer of the NEA. If tests show unsafe levels, teachers should find out how their district plans to reduce them.
As part of the Indoor Radon Abatement Act of 1988, the EPA is now conducting a comprehensive study of radon in schools. Final results from the agency's tests of more than 1,200 schools in 48 states are due by the end of the year. Lisa Ratcliff, the EPA specialist who is coordinating the study, hopes teachers will offer units on radon in their science classes. To help them, the EPA and the National Science Teachers Association have developed an educational radon poster, designed for junior high and high school students.
To get the poster or more information on radon, teachers can call the EPA's 24-hour radon hot line at (800) 767-7236. The agency has produced a variety of publications on the hazardous gas, including interim reports on radon measurement and reduction in schools and a brochure titled Radon in Schools, developed in cooperation with the NEA and the National PTA. Teachers can also contact state or local health departments for additional information.