Schools Need Radon Testing

GUEST POST from the January 18, 2023 PediaBlog by Dr. Ned Ketyer:

Dr. Ketyer & Dash

Every January during National Radon Action Month, the Children’s Environmental Health Network reminds us about the importance of testing our homes, schools, and businesses for the colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally occurring, radioactive gas that seeps into our homes and threatens our health:

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and it is the cause of approximately 21,000 deaths per year in the U.S. The longer you are exposed to radon, the greater your chance of developing radon-related lung cancer. There is no known safe level of radon exposure.

It is produced by the natural break-down of uranium in rock, soil, and water. Some areas of the U.S. have higher levels of uranium than others, and thus, there is a greater chance that buildings in those areas may have higher radon levels. Regardless of location, any building can have a radon problem.
Red: Highest potential
Orange: Moderate potential
Yellow: Lowest potential

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends radon testing at all buildings, including homes, businesses, child care facilities, and schools. EPA estimates that about 1 in 5 schools in the U.S. has at least one classroom that exceeds the radon action threshold of 4 picocuries per liter. Deb Erdley and Megan Tomasic explain why children are the ones most likely to be exposed to radon and develop health consequences later in life:

For them, the risk of developing radon-induced cancer later in life is twice as high as adults with the same exposure because youngsters’ quickly changing bodies and rapid breathing rates translate into larger doses of radiation, researchers found.

Children exposed to radon plus tobacco smoke are 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer, researchers found.

Pennsylvanians might reasonably expect that their state, with the third highest radon levels in the nation, would make testing of all schools and child care centers mandatory. Erdley and Tomasic say that’s not happening, and state politicians are to blame:

In the past decade, at least five bills requiring testing in schools have been introduced in the state House and then shifted to committee, where they languished without a hearing or committee vote, records show.

Hesitation to pass those bills comes as an estimated 21,000 Americans — 1,400 in Pennsylvania — die each year because of exposure to the naturally occurring colorless, odorless gas that makes its way into basements through virtually any opening, according to the American Lung Association.

1.7 million children attend schools in Pennsylvania. The two reporters surveyed 61 school districts and found only 19 reported radon testing in the past 5 years:

Of the 61 school districts surveyed by the Trib, those with no records of testing ranged from larger districts such as Upper St. Clair and Greater Latrobe to smaller ones such as Jeannette and Monessen.

The region’s largest district — Pittsburgh Public Schools — had no record of testing in the past five years.

Others said they had not tested for anywhere from six to more than 30 years ago.

Erdley and Tomasic spoke to one area pediatrician who finds the lack of radon testing in Pennsylvania schools outrageous:

In Dr. Ned Ketyer’s opinion, there should be no doubt that schools should test for radon — and test regularly.

“The way radon works when it gets in the body is it damages DNA, and so that’s why radon is associated with cancer, especially lung cancer,” said Ketyer, a pediatrician with Allegheny Health Network who has special interests in pediatric development and environmental health. “It takes many years and even decades for that cancer to occur and for those people to be diagnosed.”

A child exposed to radon in elementary school today might not see the effects of that exposure until their 40s or 50s, he said.

It’s hard for kids to avoid exposure to radon — at school, where they spend about 1,000 hours a year in the classroom, and in their homes, where they spend even more time breathing:

“When you think about it, who spends most time in basements playing or playing video games or watching TV? It’s kids,” Ketyer said. “So they are at risk. Little kids play in the dirt where the dirt has radioactive uranium, which is what eventually decays into radon. And kids put everything in their mouths — their hands, their fingers, toys, rocks, everything. So they’re at risk because their exposure is greater.”

Ketyer and other experts said a child exposed to radon is twice as likely to develop lung cancer as an adult with the same level of exposure.

“It affects our bodies, our genes,” said Dr. Albert Rizzo, pulmonary critical care physician and chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. “The problem with children is they have more rapid growth and there is more evidence that it can affect them. Children by definition are more at risk.”

The political impasse has to end:

“Good-faith debate” needs to occur among lawmakers from both parties, said [Dr. Ketyer].

“I think it will take legislators learning about the problem and then discussing the problem in good faith with those who are in their party and those who are not in their party,” he said.

When will mandatory radon testing in Pennsylvania schools happen?

Federal officials first published radon guidelines for schools more than 30 years ago, but the topic has fallen off the radar in many areas.

Ketyer is hopeful that will change.

Testing is easy and relatively inexpensive, he said. If levels are high, it’s a problem that easily can be remedied.

Step one is educating people about the dangers of radon, he said. Next will be stimulating conversations among legislators.

“We’re talking about protecting children’s health, and if we can save a couple of hundred lung cancer deaths in Pennsylvania every year, I think that would be a good thing,” Ketyer said. “I think everyone would agree that would be a good thing.”

Read Trib Live’s 3-part series by Deb Erdley and Megan Tomasic: “Radon The Invisible Danger”“Radon Risks”, and “What’s The Holdup?”.

Previous PediaBlog: National Radon Action Month


Radon Zones in West Virginia and Ohio:
The National Radon Action Plan 2021–2025:

“It is estimated that within typical multifamily housing, every dollar spent on radon testing and repairs returns $11 to $20 in avoided health care costs. More importantly, fixing radon levels could save years of healthy life for affected citizens. Finding and fixing high radon is an excellent investment in the health of our nation”

The National Radon Action Plan 2021-2025

Test Your Home (or School) for Radon to Reduce Lung Cancer
January 26, 2023
– January is National Radon Action Month, and it’s one Pennsylvanians might want to observe. Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium and thorium in soil and rocks. Pennsylvania has one of the most serious problems with radon in the country. It’s dangerous because radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. 

“You know that old analogy or saying, out of sight, out of mind. That causes us problems because people just aren’t aware that it’s in their homes, but it is. Pennsylvania probably has the worst radon levels in the country.”

Bob Lewis, the Radon Program Manager at the PA DEP

COMMON SENSE: Radon Testing and Remediation in Pennsylvania Schools

Lung cancer survivor urges homeowners to test for radon
January 19, 2023
– Allegheny County resident Jackie Nixon was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. She had never smoked and was a lifelong fitness practitioner. She had a tumor on the upper lobe of her left lunch and had surgery to remove it. After cancer treatment, she learned about radon and pushed for testing in her condominium building. The results showed there were high levels of radon in the building. “Forty percent of homes in Pennsylvania have a higher level of radon gas than federal guidelines,” said DEP Acting Secretary Ramez Ziadeh. “Because radon levels vary from home to home based on local geology and house foundation type, all Pennsylvanians should test their home to protect themselves and their families. DEP offers many educational resources to help.”

What’s the easiest way to test your home for Radon?

While you can purchase mail-in radon test kits at big box and hardware stores, we’ve found the AIRTHINGS Corentium Home DIGITAL RADON DETECTOR to be the best all-around solution, for multiple reasons. While it retails for around $149, you may find it available for as little as $100.

Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvania, 1989-2013:

“Between 2005 and 2013, 7,469 unconventional wells were drilled in Pennsylvania. Basement radon concentrations fluctuated between 1987 and 2003, but began an upward trend from 2004 to 2012 in all county categories (p < 0.001), with higher levels in counties having ≥ 100 drilled wells versus counties with none, and with highest levels in the Reading Prong.”

Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvania, 1989-2013