The Other 60 Percent

Radon levels untested in some schools

As many as half the schools in Colorado may be out of compliance with a 1991 state law that required them to test radon levels in their buildings and keep documentation of those tests on file.

Radon Gas SignA survey of each of the state’s 2,274 K-12 schools – sent out by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2009 and still not completed by all of them – found that most schools likely did the testing, and that most of those who found elevated levels of the cancer-causing gas did take steps to fix the problem.

But many did not. More than 300 acknowledge they never completed the testing. And many others lack the documentation to prove they did – nor can they show whether any remediation steps they took were adequate at the time and remain adequate today.

Key points
  • More than 300 Colorado schools acknowledge they never tested for radon, as required by a 1991 state law.
  • Many other schools lack the documentation to prove they completed the testing, also required by law.
  • No law requires retesting or reporting to the state on mitigation so state health officials don’t know how worried they should be.
  • The state’s Radiation Advisory Committee is mulling whether to ask lawmakers to put some teeth into the law.

Since there’s no law that requires schools to ever retest for radon levels, no law that requires them to do anything if they find radon problems and no law that requires them to report their findings or their mitigation efforts to the state, state health officials still don’t know whether they should be worried about this or not.

The state’s Radiation Advisory Committee, which received the preliminary survey results in mid-February, now must decide if the problem is potentially grave enough to warrant asking the legislature to put some teeth into the 20-year-old law.

In the meantime, no one is really monitoring what schools are doing in regards to radon, and the state lacks the resources to adequately analyze the data it does have. The report presented to the RAC was the work of a graduate student working on his master’s thesis.

“I am the radon program, and I have very limited time,” said Chrys Kelley, radon coordinator for the CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials Waste Management Division.

“It’s a project that’s bigger than me. I’ve got a million things to do, and this survey has been eating up 20 percent of my time for two years now. Who will look at it, and should there be regulatory changes? Those are questions beyond my authority. Technically, this is a school inspection issue, not a hazardous materials issue. I don’t have any authority over schools.”

Radon problem especially acute in Colorado

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally-occurring radioactive gas. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. While it is found in all 50 states, it is especially problematic in Colorado, where 53 of 64 counties report high levels of the gas.

It’s not an immediate threat to life, the way carbon monoxide is, but long-term exposure is blamed for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, including 500 in Colorado. State health officials estimate that fully half of the homes in Colorado have radon levels in excess of the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.

Radon map of Colorado
Fifty-three of Colorado's 64 counties - designated on the map in red - are radon hot spots, with likely potential for as least some rooms in buildings to have elevated radon levels.

In response to studies done in the 1980s, Colorado became one of just eight states in the nation to require radon testing in schools. The law, passed in 1990, gave schools until March 1991 to test radon levels. The law also requires newly-built schools to complete radon testing within 19 months of opening, and to alert the state after any major remodeling to determine if more tests needed to be done. The results of the tests are to be kept on file at each school and available for review.

Nearly 20 years later, the Radiation Advisory Committee – a group appointed by the governor to assess radiation-related issues in Colorado – asked Kelley to survey the schools to verify they were still in compliance with the law.

By September 2010, 1,855 of the schools – 81.6 percent – had responded, and their answers became the basis for the report delivered to the RAC. Since then, another 20 schools have responded, Kelley said. The survey was voluntary.

Most of the respondents – 1,533 – had tested as required. But 306 had not, and 16 didn’t answer the question. Most of the 306 laggards indicated that they would be doing the testing at some point. Kelley hopes that these schools will supply her with the test results once they’re completed, but they’re under no obligation to do so.

Thirty percent of schools found problems

Among schools who have done the radon tests, 30 percent – 468 schools – reported finding at least one room in the school with elevated radon levels. Those rooms had readings surpassing the level at which the EPA suggests retesting over a ninth-month period. If the long-term test continues to show high levels, the EPA says, remediation is needed. But Colorado law does not require retesting or remediation.

image of student radon poster
Olivia Brett, a Fort Collins middle school students, won top honors in the state health department

Of those 468 schools, only 194 – 41 percent – reported taking any remediation steps in the rooms that had elevated radon levels. It’s unclear why the others did not. It’s possible that they retested the problematic rooms, and if the long-term results did not signify a continuing issue, felt no remediation was necessary.

Unfortunately, the state doesn’t know just what happened in those other 222 schools. Nor does it know what happened in the 241 schools that say they tested but don’t have the results on file. Nor in the 111 schools who didn’t answer the question about whether their test results were on file. Nor in the 306 schools who didn’t complete the survey at all.

“To me, that is something we cannot ignore,” said Jim Burkhart, chairman of the Department of Physics and Energy Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a member of the RAC.

“My contention has been all along that the problem isn’t that schools are bad, but that the original legislation simply called for a snapshot: Let’s see what’s going on and see if we have a great enough problem to address. But now I think it’s time that the Colorado legislation be changed to have those other two components, follow-up testing and mitigation.”

Kelley says she knows that many schools are retesting, some because they can’t find the 20-year-old paperwork and others because they’re just not comfortable with 20-year-old data.

“I don’t know what every school is thinking,” she said. “I’ve never talked to individual schools unless they’ve called and asked me for assistance. I would really like to see all the schools given the opportunity to explain why they said what they said. A lot of schools are re-evaluating old tests now.”

She wishes she had the time to delve more deeply into the survey data to determine if the schools who never did the tests or didn’t follow through with remediation are in poorer school districts or in areas where radon is not as big a problem. She also wishes she knew why some schools only report testing one room, which doesn’t make for a valid sample, since radon can be highly concentrated in one part of a building and completely absent in another part.

Denver: Disturbing findings in the past

A year ago, Channel 7 reporter Tony Kovaleski obtained some preliminary results of the RAC survey and reported some disturbing findings, particularly in Denver. At that time, Denver Public Schools had failed to test more than a dozen new schools built after 1991, had failed to remediate high radon levels found in 76 older schools, and was able to find mitigation records for only one district building, a caretaker’s house at Balarat Outdoor Education Center.

Learn more

Since then, DPS has either re-tested each of the district’s 160 buildings or is in the process of doing so, said Joni Rix, the district’s environmental project manager.

“We did the ones that hadn’t been tested at all first,” she said. “We’re in the midst of doing long-term testing in 27 schools who had initial results over (EPA recommended levels) to find out where they are. And we have eight schools that I will put some remediation in this summer. So it’s a moving target. I’d say overall, maybe 10 to 15 percent of the rooms tested – and that’s in the thousands – will need some kind of remediation.”

The cost of testing in DPS has run over $100,000, Rix said. The cost to remediate a room averages $1,500 to $2,500. The district has applied for a BEST grant to help with mitigation efforts at some schools. But even if DPS fails to get the state assistance, the mitigation will proceed: “If we had to do tons of rooms, that would be a problem,” she said. She expects the total process to take two to three more years to complete.

Remediation needn’t be costly or complicated, experts say. It can be as simple as sealing cracks in the foundation or expansion joints or making adjustments to ventilation systems to bring more fresh air into a room. Newer building codes that require better ventilation have dramatically lowered the incidence of elevated radon levels. So have upgrades to aging systems. When old systems have been replaced, radon levels went down, even in older buildings.

Colorado Springs: Fixes still working, 20 years later

And even 20-year-old fixes may still be doing the job they were designed to do. That’s what Dan Moors, environmental specialist for Colorado Springs District 11 schools, found. When Moors was hired in 2005, he was told one of his jobs would be overseeing the district’s radon program.

“At the time, I didn’t know a lot about radon so I wrote it down on my ‘things to do’ list,” Moors said. Twenty years ago, the district found five schools with elevated radon levels, which required seven different mitigation projects. Moors went to those schools and looked at the systems put in place in 1991. At one site, he found a sticker with the installer’s name and phone number on it. He called.

Radon fan controller
During his monthly inspections, D-11 environmental specialist Dan Moors powers down radon fans for about a minute, then turns them back on. If something is wrong with the system, the needle will indicate trouble.

The installer was Doug Kladder, one of the foremost radon mitigation experts in the state.

“He walked me through what radon was, what the regulation meant to schools, and why I needed to be concerned,” Moors said. “I asked him if he would go back through all our mitigated buildings and inspect the systems, just to make sure they were still intact, to retest the schools, duplicate the ’91 follow-up test and tell me what he thought. That was my starting point in the radon world, and as far as I know, that was the only thing District 11 had ever done.”

Kladder retested all the schools involved and found that, while the numbers weren’t identical to those found after remediation in 1991, they were close.

“We found the fans were doing their job,” Moors said. “Ironically, the fans that power the systems that suck the radon out of the basements started to fail, one by one, soon after that. It’s a good thing we looked at them when we did. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have known. Now we have brand-new fans that hopefully will run another 20 years.”

Today, Moors inspects the radon mitigation systems every month, just to be safe. “It takes me 2½ hours one day a month, so it’s not a great time investment. But if I didn’t look at those for another 20 years and they failed for whatever reason, and we let radon levels go up, well, from a moral standpoint, I’m not going to let that happen. I feel it’s my job to make sure kids are safe at all times.”

Health officials advise parents who have concerns about radon levels at a child’s school to talk to their local school board. Members of the RAC also want to recruit teachers, who spend more time in schools than youngsters do, to be a lobbying force to insist that their classrooms be tested and that remediation steps be taken if needed.

But beyond that, they suggest that homeowners should test and mitigate, since most people spend the majority of their time at home.

What radon is, and how it kills

  • Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally-occurring radioactive gas. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. While it is found in all 50 states, it is especially problematic in Colorado, where 53 of 64 counties report high levels of the gas.
  • It originates in uranium-bearing granite deposits underground and seeps into buildings through cracks in the foundation, spaces under basement slabs, through openings around drains and into well water.
  • It’s not an immediate threat to life, the way carbon monoxide is, but long-term exposure to the gas is believed responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, including 500 in Colorado.
  • State health officials estimate that fully half of the homes in Colorado have radon levels in excess of 4.0 picoCuries per liter of air, the level above which the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.

Colorado law on radon testing in schools

  • Each school shall have completed radon tests by March 1, 1991. Schools constructed after the effective date of these rules and regulations shall complete radon tests within nineteen months of the date of occupancy. Schools remodeled after the effective date of these rules and regulations shall notify the department of such remodeling in order that the department may assess the need for any additional radon testing. Radon tests shall be conducted pursuant to the procedures described in the Environmental Protection Agency’s, Radon Measurements in Schools, Revised Edition July 1993 (EPA Documents #402-RO-92-014). The results of these tests shall be on file at each school and available for review.

For more information

  • Read a briefing paper on radon in the schools, prepared by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
  • Learn about the Environmental Protection Agency’s IAG Tools for Schools program, a comprehensive package of resources for helping schools maintain healthy indoor air quality.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.