Call for Action Investigation: Radon levels in local schools

Published: Sep. 11, 2018 at 7:06 PM MDT
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You can't see radon and you can't smell it, but the odorless gas causes cancer. With kids back in school now, 11 Call for Action's Katie Pelton is investigating how high the levels are in our local schools. We found some have not been checked for decades -- and they are not violating any laws.

In 1991, a law passed that required all existing schools to test for radon. New schools after 1991 would also be required to test when they opened, which means it's been decades since many schools in our area have tested.

Every year in the U.S., about 20,000 people die from lung cancer caused by radon. The EPA says thousands of classrooms across the country have high levels of it. Our Call for Action team submitted an open records request to find out if the deadly gas is in your kids' school.

Several local classrooms tested above the EPA standards of four picocuries per liter of air. Just this March, Coronado High School tested high for radon. The auto shop tested three times that higher than the standard. The district told Call for Action they adjusted their H-VAC units to bring the levels down.

In Pueblo County's School District 70, Beulah Middle School came in at more than four times higher than the safe amount. The girl's locker room came in at 18. That was back in 1990. The report said they planned to retest, but there is no record that they ever did. School officials said they don't know if it was ever mitigated, or if it was ever retested.

At Cheyenne Mountain's Canon School, results last winter came in more than six times higher than the EPA standard. The test came in at more than 25. The school closed a few years ago but it now being used as a preschool. The district told us they are mitigating right now.

Plus, one local school clocked in at nearly 40 times the safe standard. In 2002, a crawl space at School District 20's Timberview Middle School tested at more than 154. The district told us they did not mitigate or do anything to the crawl space, but when they retested they said the levels naturally fell. The district told us they think the fans were turned off during the test, and they said the occupied space above that crawl space had safe levels.

After 11 Call for Action reached out, District 20 retested the crawl space to check the levels again. On Thursday, District 20 told us the test results came back well below the recommended guideline. The crawl space now tested at less than 0.3 pCi/L. The district said everything is safe and there is no need for concern.

So what happens when schools test high for radon? Well, that may surprise you. While schools in Colorado are required to test for radon, our Call for Action team found out state law does not require schools to do anything specific to fix the problem, and there's no timeline on when they have to retest.

We turned to a local radon expert, who says radon in Colorado is a big concern.

"We're zone one, so basically one of the worst in the nation," said Brandon Atha, the owner of Advanced Radon Systems in Colorado Springs.

"It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking," Atha added. "If you're a non-smoker, then it's the first leading cause of lung cancer."

If you're concerned about radon in your child's school, you can talk with your school board to learn how they address it. The state health department also urges everyone to test their home for radon.

If you want to get a radon test kit, you can find out more information from the El Paso County Health Department.

for details.