FISHERS — A local school district is taking action to protect its students and teachers from a hidden danger you can’t see or smell.
Radon gas, a carcinogen that comes up through the soil and gets trapped in buildings, is the number one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers yet. Call 6 Investigates found most Indiana schools don’t test for it.
Hamilton Southeastern Schools (HSE) is bucking that trend by testing for radon, and other school corporations could soon follow suit as a result of pending legislation.
On Monday, testing company Micro Air placed 20 tests in classrooms throughout Hamilton Southeastern Intermediate Junior High School as part of an ongoing radon testing program.
In 2016, HSE started testing about five school buildings a year on a rotating basis, aiming to test each building every five years.
The EPA recommends schools test at least every five years, yet Call 6 Investigates found 96 percent of schools have not tested for the cancer-causing gas in the last decade.
Many schools don’t test for radon because it’s not required in Indiana, and it costs time and money. HSE’s Energy Manager, Bob Rice, pointed out it cost about $1,000 to test one school.
The district of 22,000 students spends less than $5,000 annually for radon testing, Rice said. “It seems financially worthwhile to test considering the health benefits and cost,” he said.
If a problem is found, schools can hire a mitigation company to fix the problem, which can cost thousands of dollars depending on the scope of the problem.
So far, all HSE schools have tested within acceptable levels of radon, which is generally below 4.0 pCi/L. HSE has not had to do any radon mitigation in its buildings.
Rice said the districts test for radon even though it’s not required because the safety of their students and teachers is a priority.
"I'm in these buildings every week, and I have an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old who will come through HSE so it makes me proud that HSE is being proactive to protect our kids,” Rice said. “I want my kids to be healthy, my friends, my teachers— so it's very nice to know we're doing this. "
HSE also plans to test new schools like Southeastern Elementary, which opens in August.
"You can actually have radon build up in a new building," Rice said.
States like Connecticut, Oregon and New Jersey have laws in place directing new schools be built with radon reducing construction techniques.
However, Indiana has no such requirement.
“It’s kind of shocking, because Indiana is actually one of the highest states for radon so you would think our building codes would have that built into them, but for some reason we lack that,” said Rice. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m really proud of HSE, because we are really proactive about making sure our students and teachers are healthy.”
HSE’s testing comes as Senate Bill 632 would educate schools about the importance of testing for radon.
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It passed the Senate and has been assigned to the House Public Health committee. Lawmakers hope it will prompt more schools to test for radon.
Rice is willing to talk to any schools who want to listen.
“I think once other schools hear about the dangers of radon and how it can expose teachers and students to lung cancer carcinogens, I think they'll say ‘we need to be more proactive,’” said Rice.
Eighth grader Kaila Sewer is well aware of the cancer-causing gas.
As part of a class project, she created a poster about radon which included the villain “Radonix” and the superhero “Mitigation Man.”
“It’s sneaky— it’s odorless, colorless, and you can’t see it at all,” Sewer said. “I didn’t know radon was a problem in Indiana. I was very undereducated about it.”
This EPA map shows much of Central Indiana is in a hot zone for radon, meaning the gas is widespread throughout the soil and buildings in our state.
Sewer’s poster won the district’s contest and it’s now headed to a statewide competition through the American Lung Association.
Sewer has a message for schools still on the fence about radon testing.
"I think schools should definitely test for it,” Sewer said. “Students are supposed to be safe and healthy in this environment. If you're not testing for it, you're honestly contributing to the problem. "
Micro Air will return in three days to Hamilton Southeastern Intermediate Junior High School to get the test kits and determine the results.
Unfortunately, most people do not realize they’ve been exposed to radon until they’re adults.
Call 6 Investigates found a dozen other states have already taken action regarding radon in schools — implementing laws or regulations that require or recommend testing.
New Jersey requires new schools use radon-resistant materials and techniques. In Florida, schools test for radon and report their results to the state department of health. Illinois has an education law that recommends schools test for radon.
Indiana has no radon law in place, and the Indiana State Department of Health does not compile or track which schools are testing for radon.