INDIANAPOLIS -- A Call 6 Investigation into a radon risk in the classroom is prompting action from teachers who are now calling for change at the state and local level.
Call 6 Investigates' Kara Kenney uncovered that most Indiana schools do not test for radon gas, a carcinogen known to cause lung cancer, despite federal recommendations that all schools test at least once every five years.
“It’s very concerning after watching your story,” said Teresa Meredith, teacher, and president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which represents 40,000 teachers and professionals. “Teachers are at school an exorbitant number of hours every day. They’re there on weekends, and sometimes in the summer.”
Radon is a radioactive, naturally occurring gas that seeps into buildings from the surrounding soil.
It’s the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, killing an estimated 600 people a year in Indiana and roughly 20,000 people across the country.
Radon is colorless, odorless and tasteless, so many people don't even realize they've been exposed to it until they start showing symptoms years later.
“I got a little emotional because I thought of a few educators right away who died of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their lives,” said Meredith. “That really makes me take a step back and say, ‘why aren’t we doing anything about this?’”
Call 6 Investigates uncovered the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation found dangerous of levels of radon in 2013, and it’s unclear, what if anything they did about it.
The EPA recommends schools take action to mitigate when the radon level hits 4 pCi/L or above.
Bartholomew Consolidated schools have had seven schools test above 4 pCi/L, as well as several other buildings.
Amy London, a teacher at Columbus North High School and co-president of the Columbus Educators Association, is concerned about Call 6 Investigates' findings.
“Health is very important to teachers,” said London. “If we don’t have our health, we can’t come to work every day. We can’t teach our students, so it’s very important.”
Her children attended CSA Lincoln, one of the schools that showed high levels of radon in 2013.
“My daughter is currently a 6th grader there, so yes, that is very concerning for me,” said London. “I will definitely put my trust in our administrators to make sure they take care of any issues now.”
Fortunately, the school where London teaches showed acceptable levels of radon.
London attended the school board meeting Monday night.
RTV6 was also there, but the school board and superintendent did not mention radon despite vowing last month that they would look into what happened in 2013.
“I hadn’t even thought about things being in the air in our school buildings,” said London. “You think you go to school and you’re safe. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, and you can’t think of something if you don’t know it’s there.”
Records show Bartholomew Consolidated had radon testing during fall break in 2013 when the students were gone.
Radon expert Kyle Hoylman, managing partner with Protect Environmental, said it’s considered best practice to test a building when it’s occupied.
It’s unclear if Bartholomew Consolidated plans to re-test or do any mitigation to fix the radon problem found in 2013.
Call 6 Investigates received an email Tuesday from the district’s new communications coordinator.
“At this time, we do not have any further comment on your story, but I will keep you updated as we receive any new information on the matter,” said Josh Burnett, communications coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation.
London said she’s trusting the administration will do the right thing, “I’m confident they will do what they can to make sure it’s fixed."
Call 6 Investigates surveyed dozens of schools and analyzed Indiana State Department of Health data and found of the state’s 289 public school corporations only 4% have tested for radon in the last decade.
Currently, a dozen states have requirements or recommendations in state law that push for radon testing.
Indiana has no requirement for schools or daycares to test for radon.
Teresa Meredith with the Indiana State Teachers Association said Indiana needs to start a conversation about radon.
“When we sold our home, we had to have a radon test, so why not schools?” said Meredith. “We think about bulletproof locks and hinges, but what about the dangers we can’t see? We are talking about something we can’t see, and the damaging effects aren’t felt for years.”
Meredith said the cost of testing and mitigation would likely be a hurdle to overcome.
She said the state should look into creating a fund for testing or giving school districts ample time to save for it.
“The schools will have time to adjust and prepare and plan because I’m sure there will be some that will need to have mitigation done,” said Meredith. “There is a price for everything including quality education and school safety, but if we’re going to talk school safety, let’s talk about the entire picture and not just one piece.”
Here’s what you can do to protect your family against radon-induced lung cancer:
- Contact your school board and superintendent and ask for their most recent radon test results
- If your school doesn’t have any test results, ask them to do a radon test
- Do a radon test on your home using an at-home kit or hire a company
- Remember radon can impact newer buildings as well—they’re so airtight they trap the gas
- Ask your workplace or employer to do a radon test
- Contact Indiana state representatives and senators and ask them to consider legislation requiring schools to test for radon
- Call the American Lung Association radon hotline at 1-800-272-9723
- Learn more about radon on the EPA website: https://www.epa.gov/radon