Radon test results at GHS may lead to mitigation


GUILDERLAND — Tests this winter for radon at Guilderland High School revealed several areas with readings above federal guidelines.

“It’s important to be very forthcoming,” Superintendent John McGuire told two dozen staff members who attended a meeting last Thursday about the radon test results.

The same day, parents of students were sent letters about the findings.

Michael Needham of Needham Risk Management explained that radon is an invisible gas, with no color and no odor; it comes from the decay of uranium in the ground and is radioactive.

“A building can trap the gas and it accumulates,” he said. Outside, it disperses harmlessly.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, Needham said, conducted epidemiological studies that showed radon was “probably responsible for increased lung cancer in miners.”

Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and causes about 20,000 deaths annually, according to the EPA. People who smoke have an increased risk of developing lung cancer with radon, said Needham. He described smoking in radon-laden air as having “a synergistic effect,” stating that the radon possibly energizes the particles in the smoke. Almost all the miners in the EPA study smoked, too, said Needham.

Besides lung cancer, he said, no other health problems have been linked to radon. “It doesn’t cause headaches, rashes, allergies or affect pregnancies,” he said.

Guilderland High School was last tested for radon in 1988, said Needham, when testing methods were very different. At that time, canisters were placed in the four corners of a building, which ”could miss things,” he said.

Currently, the high school is being tested in two phases. This past winter, the half of the building that includes classrooms for business, science, math, and physical education was tested. The state’s Department of Health supplied 110 charcoal canisters for the testing, said Needham.

The canisters were most often placed on teachers’ desks “because we can find them again,” he said; readings were taken at desk level, he said, because that’s where people breathe. After several days, the canisters were sealed and sent to a lab for analysis.

The majority came back below the EPA’s recommended guideline of 4 picoCuries per liter.  However, the media office, the auditorium, the east gym, a few science classrooms, the wrestling room and the coaches’ room all had readings above 4 picoCuries per liter. All of those were under 10 except the wrestling room, which was at 22.7.

If the count were 100 picoCuries per liter, people would be removed, Needham said. The over-4 reading means that further investigation and perhaps mitigation is needed, he said.

Further testing will be done in the heating season since that is when counts are usually higher, said Needham.

If mitigation is needed, he said, it could involve sealing cracks, increasing ventilation, or depressurizing, which involves placing a tube that exhausts the radon above the roofline. A plan will be developed by Camrodan Associates, which Needham called “the Rolls Royce of radon design companies.”

“Most school districts in this country have not been tested for radon,” said Needham. “It speaks well for Guilderland.” The district’s health and safety program calls for all school buildings to be tested within the next year.

The school district has invested $3,500 so far for testing, Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders told The Enterprise; he said it was too soon to estimate what further costs would be.

The Environmental Protection Agency says about 20 percent of schools nationwide have done radon testing.

Needham also said, “There’s been controversy over time about radon as a health issue. We defer to the EPA.”

“We’re going to be very aggressive in pursuing the diagnostics,” said Superintendent McGuire. “We’ll take the advice of our experts.”

He also said, “The greatest risk of anxiety is lack of information and speculation....Nobody should be anxious, [asking] What if I’m pregnant? What if I’m getting headaches?...They should feel comfortable in their workplace and school.”

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