Radon detected at Wells school

B y Jaime Thomas

At least one local parent is unhappy with officials’ response to high levels of radon in the Wells Village School.

Jennifer Miller, who has a first grader in the school and a teenager who went there as well, said on Friday she was outraged to learn through a friend there are areas of the school that tested more than seven times the recommended level.

But Joan Paustian, superintendent of schools in Rutland Southwest Supervisory Union, said students are not in danger.

Miller, however, is upset that parents were only recently notified of the problem, nearly four months after school officials first discovered the problem.

In response to parents questioning the situation, the school sent out a letter last week listing test results and explaining a plan of action.

“My question is, why were we just notified? The letter says it’s not an immediate threat. We’re being told it’s OK for our children to be breathing in levels of radioactive gas. I just feel it’s absurd that they say these kids are safe,” Miller said, who is in favor of the school being closed until the problem is resolved.

“They are in there because the Department of Health told us there are no safety concerns. If the Department of Health saw this as a major concern, they could’ve shut us down,” Paustian said.

Vermont’s Department of Health tests between seven and 15 schools per year at no cost to the schools and then works with them to find a solution to raised levels of radon.

At the Wells school, there were two screenings. Several areas in the school tested above 4.0 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L,) which is the level above which action should be taken. The technology services room, for example, was at 35.3 pCi/L, the maintenance office was at 28.9 and the fifth and sixth grade rooms were at 9.2 and 8.2, respectively.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally-occurring gas. It’s often found in basements and crawl areas and can be harmful if inhaled at high levels. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon exposure is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, behind cigarette smoking.

Some studies have shown a 50 percent increase in the risk of lung cancer for protracted exposure to radon at levels above 4pCi/L and the EPA encourages actions be taken in a home if levels are found between 2pCi/L and 4pCi/L.

“These levels are not acceptable. It’s not just children we’re talking about; there are grown adults in the school that are being exposed to this every day,” Miller said, offering statistics she had found.

“If you figure kids are in school for an average of eight hours a day for 180 school days, that child will be exposed to 10 times the radiation that the Nuclear Regulation Commission will allow in a nuclear power plant,” she said, adding that other parents she’s spoken with are equally as upset.

David Grass, environmental health surveillance chief at the state’s Department of Health, said though his department does not enforce changes upon radon detection there is no immediate threat.

His department has developed a $10,000 grant agreement to help mitigate the problem, but the state does not tell the school what method must be used.

Paustian said officials have been pursuing this course of action since September.

“That’s why we’ve moved carefully through this process, so we’re doing the right thing,” she said. She said the levels are highest in the older part of the building, where officials believe a mold shield might have led to higher radon levels.

Now, the school is hoping to go out to bid this week for a project in both the new and old parts of the building. Work is expected to be completed by July 1.

Those interested in testing their own homes for radon, where the majority of exposure takes place, can visit health.ny.gov for New York or call 800-439-8550 for a free testing kit in Vermont.

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