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.

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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.

after parkland

‘We’re not kidding about this,’ says one teen leader of Memphis march on gun violence

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in Indianapolis participate in the National School Walkout on March 14. This Saturday, students in the Memphis area will join a related March for Our Lives.

Memphis students were on spring break when this month’s national school walkout against gun violence happened, but 13-year-old Simran Bains is not going to miss her chance to publicly speak her mind.

PHOTO: Simran Bains
Eighth-grader Simran Bains is a student leader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville.

An eighth-grader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, which is on the outskirts of Memphis, Simran is one of more than a dozen teenagers planning this Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Memphis.

She believes the student drive to protest gun violence following last month’s shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, will not end anytime soon. Saturday’s march is part of a national movement organized by Parkland students to keep the conversation going about gun violence.

“I think this moment is different,” Simran said. “For every school shooting I can remember, it’s the same cycle. People are sad and shocked, but nothing ever changes.”

Students and other supporters will walk to the National Civil Rights Museum from Clayborn Temple, the historic assembling area for civil rights marches of the 1960s.

We spoke with Simran about what this march means to her and what she hopes Memphis learns from it. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Why are you participating in Saturday’s march?

For me, I’ve always been a little louder than my peers. I’ve always been one to go on a tangent or two. When I heard about the march from a friend, it really stood out to me because it’s being organized by people my age. I have never seen people this young doing stuff like this. It was inspiring. There’s this perception in society that there’s a gun problem in America and that’s how the world will always be. But here, I’m seeing young people, who are the future of America, changing the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What message do you hope to send?

I hope people hear that even though we’re young, we’re not kidding about this, and we won’t back down. I want people in Shelby County to care more about this issue and listen to us. I hope people recognize that even if they have a right to protection, no one should have to fear for their life while receiving a public education. This is a serious issue. If we don’t do something, it only gets worse from here.

But I also hope we can broaden the conversation beyond school shootings. We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, one of the highest suicide-by-gun rates in the world. We’re talking about people killing themselves, not just people killing people. Suicide and homicide aren’t often brought into this conversation. I hope that changes in Memphis.

I also want the march to remind us that we can’t become desensitized to gun violence. Whenever we read that someone was shot, we don’t always think how somebody just lost one of their own. That person will have to go home to empty bedrooms.

What specifically would you like to see happen in Tennessee?

I’m personally not one to advocate for the total removal of guns. I think that’s sometimes an assumption of people who are against protests like March for Our Lives. They assume we want to take all guns away. That’s not necessarily true. But I want a written exam to purchase a gun, like in Japan. I also want a longer wait time when you purchase a gun. I don’t think you should be able to walk into a gun shop and walk out the same day with a weapon. School shootings, or gun violence in general, can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. What if the person had to wait a few days, weeks or months before they actually got that gun? Would they still feel the same way they did when they first went to buy the gun?

Have you or your family or your friends ever been personally touched by gun violence?

My family has never been a gun family. My parents are immigrants from India, and it’s just never been a thing for us. Going to school where I do, there’s a lot of political viewpoints. Some people are really pro owning guns, some are really against. And it’s an interesting place to talk about this. But also, I’ve gotten to know people from different backgrounds. I know people in Memphis and areas surrounding it who have lost someone to guns. I’ve known people who have lost loved ones to guns in homicides or gang violence.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”