Medford Schools Find 'Elevated Levels' of Radon Gas in School Buildings

The school district says that regular testing of their facilities led to the discovery of elevated levels of the hazardous gas in their buildings, including classrooms at Griffin Creek Elementary.

Posted: Dec. 19, 2018 2:53 PM
Updated: Dec. 20, 2018 11:20 AM

MEDFORD, Ore. — Routine testing at Medford School District (MSD) buildings has led to the discovery of "elevated levels" of radon gas — a radioactive byproduct of uranium that can cause lung cancer. The elevated readings were discovered in several classrooms at Griffin Creek Elementary.

"The majority of schools did not have an actionable level of radon. However, five Griffin Creek Elementary School classrooms tested above the action level set by the Environmental Protection Agency," MSD said.

Radon is a naturally-occuring gas caused by the radioactive decay of uranium below the earth's surface. It tends to seep into buildings from the soil around them. After smoking, indoor radon exposure is considered to be the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. — causing an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year.

"EPA's national survey of schools produced some alarming results about concentrations in our children's classrooms . . . All schools must be tested to determine if there is a problem, and schools must inform parents of the results. We cannot ignore this problem," said Kathryn Whitfill, National PTA President.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends action to reduce radon levels when readings above 4.0 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter of air) are detected. The average outdoor level nationally is .4 pCi/L.

Readings at several Griffin Creek Elementary classrooms tested between 4 and 6 pCi/L in November of this year. While the raw data from MSD indicated some readings at 14 pCi/L or above — with some as high as 20 pCi/L —  MSD has since clarified that these were a control measure, known as "spikes." The purpose of spikes are explained on this informational document.

Right now, students continue to be taught in the classrooms that did test between 4 and 6 pCi/L. While the EPA calls this level "actionable," that label does not indicate any clearly discernible health effects:

"The action level is not health based," MSD said. "Like lead, there is no amount of radon that is safe."

Still, district officials do not believe that students learning in those rooms are at risk.

MSD said that their Facilities Department took immediate action to make sure their current systems were operating correctly — and to begin a second round of testing. That second round showed that "a fix to the HVAC system" resolved the issue for three of the classrooms. But five more classrooms continued to test above the EPA's standards.

“The positive news is that we’re testing to keep students and staff safe and it can be fixed,” said Ron Havniear, Manager of Facilities and Support Services.

According to MSD, the district continues to work on determining the cause, which could be "as simple as an adjustment to the HVAC system or blocking access routes from the ground."

State lawmakers now mandate that radon testing be completed by January 1 of 2021. MSD said that they began their testing in 2016 as part of a Five-Year Plan to address any issues.

According to a statement from MSD, 11 schools have been tested for radon so far.

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