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DIGGING DEEPER: Are school districts testing for a silent killer in the Southern Tier?

(WBNG) – Known as a silent killer, radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is odorless, tasteless and colorless. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s also the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.

The EPA has reported radon kills an average of 21,000 people nationwide and about 900 people in Near York.

It gets a really good hold on you before you realize it,” said George Schamback, the president of American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST). Schamback is also a certified inspector at the Professional Home Inspection Service in Binghatmon.

Radon can only be detected through testing. The EPA states a safe level of radon is 4 picocuries per liter (4 pCi/l). The EPA considers 34 counties in New York to be high-risk areas, with Tioga being ranked fourth in the state.

While many homes are tested for radon levels, many schools are not. Taking a closer look, the EPA recommends schools test every five years, but many states do not require schools to test for the gas, including New York.

According to New York State law, schools are only required to, “take responsibility to be aware of the geological potential for high levels of radon and to test and mitigate as appropriate.”

So you spend seven, eight hours a day in that school and then you go home and then you go home to a house with high radon, you’re at risk. You’re very much at risk for radon-induced lung cancer,” Schamback said.

In early October, 12 News filed for public records through the New York State Department of Health to see which school districts in Broome, Chenango, Cortland and Tioga counties have tested for radon and what their results were. Six weeks later, the department responded saying those documents would not be available for an additional three months.

Continuing our search, we received the public records of a study conducted by the New York State Department of Health. It surveyed 59 schools in high-risk zones in 1991 through a series of short-term and long-term tests. Its results found 43 schools came back with one or more rooms with 4 pCi/l or above.

A fact Schamback was not surprised to hear.

Think of the size of the footprints of these schools. They’re huge. There is an excellent chance that one of those rooms is going to come back hot,” he explained.

One of the schools tested in the study was the P. F. Donnelly Elementary School in the Susquahanna Valley School District. Its short-term results came back with an average of 13 pCi/l. That’s more than three times the EPA safe level of radon.

In a statement the district says:

“In the early 1990s, the New York State Health Department took part in “radon in schools” study funded in part through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Candidate schools, selected from areas in which existing information indicated a high risk for indoor radon issues, were invited to participate. Fifty-nine districts in the state accepted. Susquehanna Valley’s Francis P. Donnelly Elementary School was one of two schools in Broome County that elected to take part. Initial testing indicated a high level of indoor radon present in one or more rooms at F.P. Donnelly.

At the 1995 International Radon Symposium, NYSDOH representatives presented information about the radon in schools project indicating that extensive testing was done in the candidate buildings for up to a year or more. After the long term results were studied, the health department followed up with telephone surveys and diagnostic and mitigation assistance. According to the 1995 symposium report, the telephone survey indicated that 17 of the 34 school districts with elevated radon levels had taken advantage of State Energy Office assistance offers; another 17 districts had performed an internal evaluation to develop a course of action, and five of the 34 districts had successfully completed mitigation measures. As a result of the testing conducted in 1991 and ’92 at Francis P. Donnelly, the district installed a radon mitigation system in the school, which remains in operation to this day. 

Susquehanna Valley is currently working with Lora Dewey, Greater Southern Tier BOCES Health and Safety Hygienist, who is in the process of preparing and submitting a plan to the New York State Department of Health for radon testing in our schools. Once the plan has been approved, we will begin implementing it. SV is currently in the midst of a capital project, and any radon mitigation related expenses will be tied to that project.” 

If that was nearly three decades ago, what are schools doing now? Searching for answers, 12 News reached out directly to more than 20 schools throughout the Southern Tier.

Although many never responded, the Chenango Forks , Chenango Valley, Union-Endicott, Vestal and Whitney Point School Districts told 12 News they have tested in some capacity.

“Testing for radon is really part if the overall look at student safety,” said Whitney Point Central School District Superintendent Patricia Follette.

The district tested its facilities in 2016 as part of its capital project. Its results showed eight spaces came back with elevated levels of radon ranging from 4.1 – 5.7 pCi/l.

“The numbers weren’t high, but we wanted to make sure that if there was any elevated levels that we would be able to take care of them,” she said.  

Follette says the school has since installed the proper mitigation systems. She says the entire process from testing to mitigation cost the district $40,000. However, that number often depends on the type of testing and its results.

There’s just no reason not to test them other than they’re afraid to test them because they’re afraid of what it’s going to cost to mitigate them. I mean, it could run into the hundreds of thousands or it could run into a million dollars to mitigate a school,” said Schamback.

While those schools say they have tested, others say they have not and they don’t need to.

The Maine-Endwell School District said in a statement, “We do not test at this time because it isn’t required, as I believe you knew. However, that doesn’t mean we would not look at testing devices in future capital projects. We just don’t do it at this time.”

Other schools pointed 12 News in the direction of Broome-Tioga BOCES. That’s where Superintendent Allen Buyck says they do provide resources to schools if they request it.

“We want to be responsive to their needs, but we don’t want to sell them something they don’t believe that they need,” Buyck said. 

Buyck insisted schools in the area are properly addressing radon issues.

“Our schools have been quite proactive and I think that I they thought it was in their best interest to test, they would test,” Buyck said.

He also emphasized how it is up to each individual district to make its own decision whether or not to test.

Schools are so large that you could have differences within buildings as well, so you could have an issue in one room and not have an issue in another room, so we usually wait until a school asks for testing to be done and then we respond to that” he said.

Yet, BOCES does not keep records of which schools have tested. Leaving many to wonder under which category their school district falls.

It’s very scary not to know what the levels are, I think that people roll the dice,” said Schamback.

The question remains: Is anything being done to change this legislation and require schools to screen for radon? Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (D, 123rd District) is one of our local leaders pushing for change.

People do get alarmed for their families, their children, and they don’t want the youngsters growing up in an environment where they’re effectively smoking cigarettes without any exposure to smoke,” she said.  

For several years, she has co-sponsored a bill looking to require New York State schools to test for radon, although it hasn’t moved from committee.

It’s not uncommon. Many states are very lax in their oversight of chemical contamination and also the public exposure in the work place and in people’s homes, so it doesn’t surprise me. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that schools now have to test their drinking water for lead because of a bill that I passed. It makes you wonder,” said Lupardo.

Now, she’s working to create a radon task force. She says it would include a variety of professionals across agencies that will come up with a comprehensive plan to evaluate radon levels in the area and how to approach the issue.

The bill is waiting to be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. 12 News has reached out to the governor’s office several times for comment and have not heard back.

While we wait for answers, for some the next step is clear.

Why aren’t you as a parent saying to your school, ‘Are you testing?’” Schamback said, “Go to the administration, whoever that is that runs the school, and say, ‘Why aren’t you mandating that these schools be tested?’”

Click here for information from the New York State Department of Health on radon test results by county.

Report from New York State Department of Health on radon levels in schools:

Report from Whitney Point Central School District on radon test results and recommendations:

New York State Assembly bill to require NYS school districts to test for radon:

Jackie Prager

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