Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. When radon gas is inhaled and decays, it releases small bursts of radioactive energy, which cause tissue damage to the lungs. Exposure to elevated levels of radon over time increases the likelihood of developing lung cancer or other lung disfunction. Smoking or vaping combined with exposure to unhealthy levels of radon further increase the likelihood of these serious health effects. Non-occupational radon exposure in the U.S. may cause between 2,000 and 20,000 cancer deaths per year and is the leading cause of cancer among non-smokers.
Tobacco Quitline can help you stop smoking.
Radon and Children
The U.S. EPA ranks indoor radon among the most serious environmental health problems facing us today. Children are more vulnerable to the effects of radon because they have smaller lungs and therefore higher breathing rates - children take in more air than adults do.
"All students have the right to expect a safe and healthy environment. Teachers and other school employees should encourage their schools to conduct radon tests and undertake all necessary corrective actions. The health of our children demands no less." – Keith Geiger, National Education Association President
How Radon Can Enter a School
According to the U.S. EPA, on average, one in five U.S. schools has at least one room with a radon concentration that exceeds the recommended action level (4 pCi/L, or picoCuries per liter).
Radon gas is created when naturally occurring radioactive elements present in the earth’s crust decay. Radon is present everywhere in the natural (outdoor) environment at low levels around 0.4 pCi/L. Radon gas can seep up through the soil under a building, through cracks and openings in the building’s foundation, and collect and concentrate in the building to unhealthy levels.
Precursor elements that decay to produce radon gas exist at different amounts in different geographic areas based on the underlying geology. Some areas produce more radon gas, which increases the potential for radon to accumulate in buildings.
Washington Tracking Network Radon Risk Map shows how different geology across our state produces different amounts of radon. This map DOES NOT indicate areas where buildings should be tested or not tested. A building’s construction has a lot to do with how radon can collect and concentrate within the building. Buildings in relatively “low risk“ areas may be found to have unsafe radon levels. And buildings in relatively “high risk“ areas may be found to have safe radon levels. The only way to know the level of radon in a building is to test.
What You Can Do
Test. Fix. Retest.
- All schools should test for radon. Some states legally require schools be tested for radon, including Oregon, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, and Virginia. Read more at EPA’s Radon in Schools.
- Washington schools should follow the OSPI/DOH Health and Safety Guide for K-12 Schools in Washington State (This guide is currently under review - contact us for a copy.) recommendations to establish baseline measurements for radon.
How to Test
- Do-It-Yourself (DIY) test kits are easy-to-use and inexpensive (~$20). DIY test kits are available at hardware stores, home improvement stores, and online retailers. We have a limited supply of accurate radon test kits free of charge. Follow the directions of the kits closely.
- District staff can conduct DIY tests accurately by closely following instructions included with DIY test kits.
- Short term (2-7 days) and long term (90+ days) DIY tests are available - both accurately measure the radon they are exposed to during the test duration.
- Test the most frequently used rooms on and below the ground level. Storage closets and crawl spaces should not be tested. The goal is to learn what the radon levels are in the areas where people spend their time to understand exposure.
- Limit outdoor air exchange during testing by conducting tests in cooler months when windows are less likely to be open. Document the site and weather during testing.
- Tests should be done every two years or following any significant renovation.
- Mail the test kit at the post office immediately after collection. There is a limited amount of time for the test kit to be received at the lab for accurate analysis, if the kit arrives late, it will not be analyzed and no results will be provided. A DIY kit will typically specify a lab for analysis, and, in most cases, will come with pre-paid postage.
- For more details, watch these webinars on Radon Testing in Schools: State Protocols and Resources (American Lung Association) and School Radon Testing Basics (Kansas State University).
- Generate a radon management plan for your school that includes testing and handling test results. The EPA recommends a six-phase process for Managing Radon in Schools, EPA.
- Designate a district contact who generates, updates, and administers the radon management plan. This might be a risk manager, safety representative, or maintenance and operations lead.
- A normal average radon level in outdoor air is ~0.4 pCi/L. When radon levels are greater than 2.0 pCi/L inside a school facility, the EPA recommends considering mitigation. If radon levels exceed 4.0 pCi/L, the EPA recommends taking mitigation action. Contact the DOH radon program for more information.
- Fixing buildings to reduce radon exposure can include sealing cracks in the foundation or subfloor, installing a gas-tight vapor barrier, adding or unblocking ventilation, or depressurizing the soil. Many schools have successfully applied radon mitigation strategies to control indoor radon levels. Follow the ANSI-approved Radon Mitigation Standards for Schools, EPA.
- School is not the only place that students and teachers can be exposed to radon. DOH also provides free test kits for homes.
Design Buildings for Control of Radon
- Evaluate the site to inform the design.
- Chapter 51-52 WAC includes requirements for outdoor air ventilation of buildings and defines radon protection construction standards.
- Follow the ANSI-approved Radon Control Systems Standard for Schools, EPA.
- Plan and build to reduce radon entry, seal foundations, use wire reinforcements to minimize cracking, and ventilate basement areas and crawlspaces. Windows should not be a planned way to reduce radon concentrations. For more information, see School Indoor Air Quality Best Management Practices Manual (PDF).
- Radon should be considered during site inspections of new school facilities. Read more in OSPI‘s School Facilities Manual: School Construction Assistance Program (Section 503, Site Review by Local Code Agencies).
Consider Radon During Construction Projects
Indoor Air Quality Design Tools for Schools, EPA provides guidance on how to manage radon risks during repair, renovation, and construction projects.
Support Radon Awareness
Get involved in the annual Radon Poster Contest! The Washington State Department of Health works with our Northwest Radon Coalition partners to sponsor the contest for children ages 9-14 in January and February. Prizes awarded at the state, regional, and national levels.
Teach radon awareness. See New Hampshire's curricula for 5th and 7th grades. Resources include lesson plans, booklets, and presentations.