Radon, an invisible killer, has gone undetected in more than half of New York's school buildings because testing for the naturally occurring gas is not required.
A Gannett analysis of the most recent school building condition reports at the state Education Department found that 1,832 school buildings have not been tested for radon.
More than 400 of those buildings are in 34 upstate counties designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as having high potential for elevated indoor radon levels, according to the reports.
In the Rochester area, where radon levels are mostly low, fewer than half of school buildings have been tested. In the town of Mendon, though, where 40 percent of house basements have unsafe levels of radon, neither the Pittsford nor Honeoye Falls-Lima district tests for it, according to state data.
The lack of testing, especially in potentially high-radon areas, runs counter to long-standing advice of public health experts and the EPA.
"Definitely, schools should be tested," said William Angell, a University of Minnesota professor who chairs the World Health Organization's Radon Prevention and Mitigation Working Group. "For more than 20 years, there has been a clear recommendation for schools to test for radon."
Local tests not uniform
Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas found in the soil that is odorless, tasteless and invisible. It is the cause of up to 30,000 fatal cases of lung cancer each year, according to the EPA, and can be detected only by testing.
In Monroe County, testing in most towns shows average concentrations of radon below dangerous thresholds. But even in those towns, between 10 percent and 20 percent of houses test at higher-than-acceptable rates.
The worst concentrations are in the southern part of the county. In Wheatland, half of the 60 house basements tested by the state Department of Health in 2012 had an unsafe concentration of radon; in Mendon, 40 percent were unsafe, including one site with 100 times the maximum safe level of four picocuries per liter.
Wheatland-Chili has tested its school buildings for radon, according to state data, as have other districts including Greece, West Irondequoit, Fairport, Rush-Henrietta, Gates Chili and Victor.
Honeoye Falls-Lima and Pittsford, however, which split the town of Mendon, are among those that have not tested. Others include the Rochester School District, Webster, Spencerport and East Irondequoit.
Pittsford spokeswoman Nancy Wayman wrote in an email that the district does not test because long-ago tests indicated safe levels, and nearby school districts have recently tested and found safe levels as well. A Honeoye Falls-Lima spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Victor tests every five years, most recently in 2010, when results were below dangerous levels, Facilities Director Chris Marshall said. Greece also recently tested its 19 buildings and found safe levels.
In Rochester, district spokesman Chip Partner wrote in an email: "The district works closely with the Monroe County Health Department and other experts on multiple health and safety issues, and would re-assess the need for radon testing if the facts suggest an increased concern."
The state records appear to contain some errors, likely committed by district representatives in filling out the forms. They indicate, for instance, that Greece installed mitigation systems in four of its buildings, but a district spokeswoman could find no record of that happening.
Furthermore, the state form that districts fill out to report whether they've tested for radon is vague, not specifying any time frame. A test conducted decades ago — for instance, the Hilton school district's most recent test in 1991 — is enough to check the "yes" box.
The odorless, invisible gas can sometimes pop up in surprising ways. In 2001, sixth-graders in Elmira conducting radon tests at their school as part of a science lesson found the gas at 11 times the level considered potentially harmful by the EPA.
Tests can be costly
Testing for a building of about 60,000 square feet — a typical footprint for a school — might cost between $1,400 and $1,600, said George Schambach, a licensed home inspector with radon certification at Professional Home Inspection, based in Binghamton.
The expense to mitigate a 60,000 square-foot building could be $35,000 to $60,000, he said.
Unlike other states with high-radon areas, New York laws and regulations do not require testing in schools.
Under New York's education regulations, the only responsibility school districts have is "to be aware of the geological potential for high levels of radon and to test and mitigate as appropriate."
Legislation that would require radon testing in all public and private schools in New York has stalled for years.
By contrast, Colorado and Virginia require all schools to be tested for radon and for the results to be publicly disclosed. Other states — including Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island — have testing regulations that just apply to school buildings within the EPA's designated high-potential areas.
State Senator Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, who is sponsoring the testing legislation, said radon in schools is a "silent killer" that often is overlooked by lawmakers and members of the public.
"This is a problem in many people's households, but particularly in schools, where we very rarely test for it," he said. "Because so many of our school buildings are old, we need to start paying attention to them."
Even within New York, some state agencies have regulations meant to mitigate the risk of radon exposure.
Anyone applying for a license to open a day care center in a high-radon area of New York is required by the state Office of Children and Family Services to show they have tested for radon. The applicant is exempt from that rule, however, if the proposed day care center is in a public school building.
Angell, of the University of Minnesota and the World Health Organization, said the 1994 EPA recommendation that all of the nation's schools be tested for radon should be followed.
Because radon exposure is cumulative, he said, the health effects of radon on school children will stay with them for life.
"After 20 years, it's time for buildings that haven't been tested...to be tested," said Angell. "And legislation that encourages that, or requires that, is, in my opinion, very important."
Parker said there hasn't yet been a mass appeal for radon testing in schools because so few are aware of the issue.
And at a time when school districts face many mandates with less and less funding, he said, state officials will need to figure out a funding mechanism to limit the burden on school districts.
But Parker said he has an answer for those who ask about the cost of a testing requirement.
"What will it cost us if we don't test for it?" he asked.
Test your house
Radon test kits are available at most hardware stores, or from the New York state Department of Health on its website. They generally cost less than $20, but there is sometimes a lab test fee of up to $30.
• Testing shows that the worst concentrations of radon are in the southern part of Monroe County.
• Monroe County school districts that have not tested for radon include Honeoye Falls-Lima, Pittsford, Rochester, Webster, Spencerport and East Irondequoit.
• Testing for a building of about 60,000 square feet — a typical footprint for a school — might cost between $1,400 and $1,600.
What is Radon?
Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas found in the soil that is odorless, tasteless and invisible. It is the cause of up to 30,000 fatal cases of lung cancer each year.