Officials: Radon levels in schools don’t require mitigation

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Officials are saying radon levels in North Providence classrooms are not alarming, citing past and current test data and Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Josephine Saltzman, owner of Ocean State Analytical Services, told The Breeze she’s conducted “long-term, follow-up” tests at all North Providence schools, as well as what she called “short-term” exams.

While March 2016 “short-term tests” showed higher levels of radon, a radioactive gas, in two classrooms at Whelan Elementary and in “crawl space areas” at Stephen Olney Elementary, Saltzman said the numbers from those tests don’t tell the whole story.

The EPA points out that “short-term” tests are the fastest way to examine for radon using a device for up to 90 days. Since radon levels shift from season to season, long-term tests are more likely to show a true average radon level, the EPA and Saltzman said. Long-term tests are in place for more than 90 days, or the length of a school year, according to the EPA.

Saltzman said that if levels in a school reach 4 picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L) or higher, but are below 10 pCi/L, a follow-up test should be conducted within nine months.

Because of a personal health situation, Saltzman said she was not able to perform the long-term evaluations as planned during the winter months this year.

The 2016 “short-term” radon report for Whelan shows that two ground floor classrooms tested at 5.4 and 6.1 in March of last year. Crawl space areas at Stephen Olney showed radon levels at 4.8, 5.5 and 6.3 pci/L.

“If the Whelan long-term follow-up tests (from past years) had not come out below 4.0 pCi/L, the Rhode Island Department of Health’s radon department would have made North Providence mitigate the school long ago,” said Saltzman.

Saltzman said since there will be a new roof and ventilation system at Whelan Elementary soon, she said she plans to conduct long-term testing in the two classrooms that showed elevated levels of radon in the short-term exam.

Finance Director John McNamee said the next scheduled tests for all North Providence schools are coming in September.

An EPA report states that elevated levels “may exist in at least some schools in every state.”

McNamee said crawl spaces are areas where mechanical wiring is located, and said staff members and students never occupy those spots.

By state law, Saltzman said, every school must have radon tests done, but she noted that crawl space tests are not mandated. Rhode Island, she said, was the first state in the country to require these examinations, and she was one of the first people licensed to perform the work in Rhode Island in 1994.

Part of the state mandate, said Saltzman, requires inspectors to conduct the tests during cold months, between October of one year and March 31 of the following year.

The purpose of this, she said, is to evaluate the “worst case scenario,” with heating systems running and windows closed throughout the building at a time when the radon level can be three times higher because of cold temperatures outside.

“We’re making it so that you’re getting the highest (pCi/L rate) you’re ever going to see,” she explained.

Tests must be done during the school day, Saltzman explained, and each time she administered these tests, she’d post large signs throughout the school reminding faculty members to keep their windows shut for accurate readings.

She said every three years, the rooms must be tested again.

In December, once it’s cold enough, Saltzman said she’ll return to the North Providence schools to run more tests.

Saltzman said it’s not just schools that are required to have these tests – state and town-owned buildings are also mandated to run them.

Saltzman said the average pCi/L indoor rate in Rhode Island is 3.5, and said while the North Providence schools’ long-term readings came out at acceptable figures below 4, it’s good for people to be aware of the health risks associated with very high amounts of radon.

“There’s radon in the whole world,” Saltzman said, noting that the Rhode Island outdoor rate is .5 pCi/L.

She said radon is the leading cause of lung cancer, and said it is “much, much worse than secondary smoke.”

Once Olney and James L. McGuire are demolished and new schools are built on those sites, she said, there will be no radon in those buildings, but the School Department can purchase inexpensive tools that prevent the gas from entering the building in the future.

The radon test results recently reported by WJAR-TV stem from environmental concerns within North Providence school buildings, after 20 teachers, past and present, had been diagnosed with cancer, mostly breast and pancreatic cancer, over the years.

Saltzman said, “There’s no indication anywhere that radon causes anything but lung cancer,” citing research and her own conversations with EPA officials.

The Department of Health is working to analyze historical information on staff members to examine the cancer registry “to determine if there was anything abnormal in terms of the cancer rate,” spokesman Joseph Wendelken said.

“We’ve been doing everything that we need to do to make sure that the schools are safe for teachers and students,” said McNamee, saying school officials regularly conduct environmental studies including air quality tests.


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