Radon - An Unmitigated Risk in New York Schools

Radon is not just a silent killer, it is a killer with the feet of a cat, a cloak of invisibility, and the patience to wait decades if need be. Radon kills an estimated 21,000 deaths in the U.S. every year, a little above 1/8th of the number of deaths caused by smoking. This also places radon higher, than both drunk driving and home fires as a cause of death.

New York State Health Department - Graph of deaths by various sources

So, it is not surprising that it is often overlooked. However, given the appropriate testing methods it can be found and mitigated at a relatively small expense. Despite this, New York state has no testing requirements for schools, merely a recommendation. According to the Democrat & Chronicle, "fewer than half of school building have been tested" in the Rochester area.

Radon is a mildly radioactive gas, you won't keel over in a few minutes as though it were a vat of uranium. However, based on EPA estimates it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. To develop lung cancer one needs to be exposed to relatively high levels over the course of years. A few hours of exposure one time will do nothing, spending eight hours a day from the ages of five to eighteen can raise your risks of lung cancer significantly.

According to William Angell, a board member of the UN group devoted to radon mitigation, "The current recommendations of national standards, dealing with schools and large building radon measurements, calls for any measurements that are below the national action level, four picocuries per liter, to be retested every five years thereafter." Levels above 4 pCi/L are considered hazardous and steps should be taken to mitigate the radon level.

According to the New York Health Department, radon seeps in from the surrounding rocks. It is also a heavier gas, so it tends to accumulate in basements and on the first floor of buildings. Different rocks produce radon at different rates. Buildings in one area will tend to have radon introduced at similar rates, since generally the ground below contains the same radon producing substances.

Number of occurrences above the action level in each county

This map shows the number of homes in each county with radon levels over the action limit. It becomes clear that some areas have radon occur at rates higher than in other areas. It is important to note that radon occurs over the action limit everywhere, even if the overall rate at which it occurs is lower.

According to the NY State Health Department "Districts shall take responsibility to be aware of the geological potential for high levels of radon and to test and mitigate as appropriate." Which is a very non-rigorous requirement and leaves the decision almost entirely up to the school. Notably, However, the issue is that everywhere has potential. As can be seen in the above grapic, even areas with low rates still have some areas that end up with a radon build up. So, if every school chose to test, what would be the cost. Is a relatively low risk outweighed by the cost?

It would not seem to be that that is the case. I spoke with two representatives from the New York State health department and learned that "We [the health department] can offer test kits to the school through our present program, the grant is called State Indoor Radon Grant… so, we can pass along the price of a kit. it is $5.50." Of course, it takes more than a single test kit for a whole school, according to the representatives I talked to "a typical school could have up to 75 test kits and if there are several schools in a district it could take up a fair amount of logistics in doing the tests." However, even then the total would at most be a few thousand dollars. Which, if following EPA recommendations, would only need to payed every five years. So, the overall cost is a rather paltry amount given the budget of a typical school.

As it stands the state has most schools in the recommended testing area anyway, according to the two representatives I spoke with, "if the geometric mean is above two picocuries per liter we classify that as high risk. So, districts or residents that are within those counties, and its approximately 2/3rds of the state, actually." Given that most schools should be testing anyway, it seems that stepping up to include the remaining third, especially given the low cost, would not be unreasonable.

Of course, the cost will go up if the test ends up coming back positive for high radon levels. However, at that point an actual identified risk exists, so at that point a higher cost becomes very reasonable. And, even then, the cost is not outrageous. According to William Angell "sometimes what you find is, you’ll find a very minor problem with a mechanical system that can be adjusted to prevent the radon problem." Even when more direct mitigation is needed William Angell said that it is "not terribly expensive."

All of these factors combined: the low cost of testing, the low frequency with which it is needed, and the relative ease of mitigation if found seem to point to a large benefit of testing. With few hurdles in the way and a high risk for children if the problem is not mitigated, why would you not act. However, as long as a non-enforceable standard is in place, the risk of exposure for children will remain higher than is necessary.