News 13 Investigates: The invisible danger of radon in schools

While the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, encourages schools to test for radon every few years, in many mountain counties, that hasn't happened. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

Decades-old tests in several mountain counties revealed a possible health hazard in more than a dozen schools. A News 13 investigation uncovered that little has been done with high radon levels since the tests were done.

While the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, encourages schools to test for radon every few years, in many mountain counties, that hasn't happened.

Thirteen states now have some type of mandated radon testing for schools, because long-term exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer, but North Carolina isn't one of them.

Seven hours a day, for 185 days, as thousands of mountain students soak in knowledge, could their schools could be making them vulnerable to something else?

“They do spend a lot of time here, as do the staff and faculty,” Hall-Fletcher PTO president Vicki Catalano said.

Enough time that Catalano expects schools to be healthy.

“I would like to think that Asheville City Schools would indeed address the issue and do something about it,” Catalano said.

When Catalano saw the school radon tests Congress mandated in the 90s with higher levels of radon, but little evidence of further testing or remedies, she had questions.

“I don't know that the testing that was done 28 years ago was enough. That's an old test. I think that's out-of-date information,” Catalano said.

What is radon? It's a radioactive gas created when uranium breaks down. It can seep undetected into buildings through cracks in the walls or foundation and can swell to unsafe levels.

Mills River has the nation's largest radon testing lab, Air Check. In a week, you can hang a test, mail it to the lab, where it's opened, analyzed and results are emailed back to you.

If the results are high, the N.C. Radon Commission said the EPA recommends action.

“Maybe at least 25 percent of the homes in Western North Carolina could have elevated levels of radon,” said Catherine Rosfjord, radon training and branch manager for the Radiation Protection Section of the N.C. DHHS.

The '90s testing proves radon could be an issue in schools, too.

“It's pretty old data at this point, but it did just help to increase the awareness for those schools so they could do some follow-up testing, and just see where they are with that,” Rosfjord said.

Here in WNC, where radon levels for some counties are among the state's highest, schools in Buncombe, Henderson and Haywood counties along with the Asheville City Schools all emailed or told News 13 the same thing.

“The state of North Carolina doesn't require schools to check for radon, and radon isn't really a concern at this point for the school system,” said Don Sims, director of maintenance for Asheville City Schools.

There is no state or federal requirement. Still, the EPA said it's important for students, teachers and parents to be aware that a problem could exist.

“Some schools will voluntarily test the school. We don't necessarily find out when they're doing that or get those results,” Rosfjord said.

Research by News 13 showed 13 Haywood County Schools were tested in 1997, and all rooms were below the EPA's actionable level. Superintendent Bill Nolte said Haywood County's done no testing since and avoids spending taxpayer dollars on environmental testing unless mandated.

In 1990, West Henderson High School and Etowah, Dana and Hillandale Elementary schools were tested and all had some rooms with higher levels, but again there was no follow up, research showed. Hillandale Elementary was rebuilt in 2009, but the new building wasn't tested, despite being adjacent to the old school.

Thirty-two Buncombe County Schools were tested and nine schools had rooms above actionable levels, the research showed. The schools followed up in all buildings but Fairview Elementary. But when asked what was done, school officials didn't know and don't test.

Of the eight Asheville City schools tested, research uncovered rooms with levels in some cases two times greater than the actionable level. But again, there was no follow up.

Asheville City Schools' maintenance director Don Sims was the only one to talk on camera, so he was asked why no follow up was done.

“We can't speak to what happened 28 years ago,” Sims said.

One reason is because records on environmental testing are only kept for seven years.

“The Asheville City Schools would never put a dollar bill above one of our students and their health, the risk,” Sims said when asked if cost was issue.

During renovations to Asheville High School's Career Tech Building, more testing was done in 2016 and again earlier in 2018, but that didn't include rooms in other high school buildings that showed higher levels in 1990.

So why wasn't further testing wasn't done? We asked Sims if some of those classrooms, back in the '90s, had actionable levels.

“Like I spoke to you earlier, what happened 28 years ago, I cannot speak to that,” Sims said.

School administrators wouldn't allow Sims to answer questions News 13 didn't send in advance.

When News 13 asked if the station could not ask follow-up questions, school officials said we were done.

While schools are now aware of the '90s data, officials have said that without a mandate, they don't plan to test.

Thirteen states require schools to test for radon, but the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists former president, who has lobbied for changes, said the process can be rough.

“Sometimes, you have to go through several rounds of legislative defeats before you find that key to success,” said Shawn Price, former AARST president.

At Air Check, the number of schools testing -- mandatorily and voluntarily -- is slowly growing.

“It's not an insurmountable cost when you consider the liability of potentially exposing children, and even worse the teachers who are there year after year after year,” Air Check Inc. lab director Eric Kuzniar said.

Catalano hopes local schools might change past practices with the promise of upcoming renovations.

“I certainly hope that some radon testing will be incorporated into those renovation plans for Hall-Fletcher and any other schools,” Catalano said.

She's also waiting to see what more the city schools can tell her.

“They've assured me they are currently, actively investigating what happened to this report, what came as a result of the report findings,” Catalano said.

Radon experts said mitigation isn't always costly, sometimes it's a simple adjustment to a HVAC system.

Because of News 13’s questions, many districts are working to learn more about the previous testing. News 13 will follow up with the schools.

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