CLEVELAND -- We send our children to school to learn in what we hope is a safe, and healthy environment. But in classrooms all over Ohio, there is a potential health threat in the air and long-term exposure at elevated levels can be dangerous.
"Yes, children spend 8 hours a day, school hours and often extra-curricular activities exposed to whatever is in the building," explains Tony McDonald, Vice President of AZ Radon Services.
Invisible, odorless and naturally occurring, radon develops from the breakdown of solid and rock. It moves from the ground and escapes into the air. The problem is when the radon seeps into buildings. Prolonged exposure damages the cells lining the lungs.
"About 10 percent of cases of lung cancer are directly attributable to radon. Since about 220,000 Americans a year get lung cancer, that comes to about 21,000 deaths per year from radon," explains Dr. Nathan Pennell, a medical oncologist with the Cleveland Clinic's Taussig Cancer Center.
The Environmental Protection Agency looked at radon levels across the United States. It has categorized Ohio as a Zone 1 state. Because of the state's geological formation, buildings like homes and schools have the greatest potential for dangerous radon levels.
In 2008, the North Canton School district tested radon levels in its classrooms. Four came back with levels above 4 pCi/L, the EPA's recommended action level. Caulking and minor ventilation repairs fixed two of the classrooms.
"We ended up having a company come in and do a mitigation procedure," according to Mike Hale, the North Canton School District Maintenance Director. AZ Radon services fixed the other rooms by installing a ventilation system.
Tony McDonald says the paperwork took about four months, but the actual repair took only a few days.
"We were able to fix part of the building really at no cost, and the rest was done relatively inexpensively," Hale said.
The EPA estimates about 70,000 classrooms in the U.S. have radon levels at or above the action level of 4 pCi/L. But federal laws do not mandate radon testing in schools. Only five states require it in districts. Ohio is not one of them.
"Not knowing is not a good thing" is a philosophy Mike Hale supports. He wishes other districts would take the opportunity to test for radon, which is fairly simple and inexpensive.
But as schools struggle with funding cuts and passing levies, voluntary radon testing isn't likely on their priority list.
Mike Hale thinks it should be.
"We had a superintendent who had a saying. 'We can do anything we want to do. We can't do everything.' We may have some potholes in the parking lot. We may have some other areas that really irritate people. But you have to understand those priorities are the health and safety of our children. Those are our number one," Hale says.
North Canton is preparing to re-test this spring. The University of Toledo keeps a list of schools that have tested for radon.
Access the list here
However, there can be a delay in reporting when schools do test. Parents can call their districts to find out the status of radon testing. Rooms with direct contact with the ground are of greatest concern.
Also, spaces that were not originally designed as classrooms or offices may be at greater risk as well. It's not uncommon in growing districts that storage spaces or basement rooms have been converted into classrooms.
It's also important to test for radon in your own home. Self-test kits are available at hardware and home improvement stores.