Most Evergreen Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools campuses are located in parts of the county more likely to test positive for elevated levels of the radioactive gas radon, a Columbian analysis shows.
Department of Health data dating from 1989 through 2016 shows the southern part of Clark County, nearer to the Columbia River, is more likely to test positive for elevated levels of radon. The colorless, odorless gas is the nation’s second-leading cause of lung cancer and leading cause for nonsmokers. Smoking causes an estimated 160,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. every year, while radon causes about 21,000.
That swath of the county is home to most campuses of the area’s two largest school districts, including Evergreen schools, where the district recently announced it had discovered elevated levels of radon.
Mike Selig, weatherization program manager for Clark County, said those areas are more prone to elevated levels due to 13,000-year-old deposits from the Missoula Floods, which swept radon-laden granite into the region.
“It’s the actual decay of the granite,” he said. “It sets off some kind of radon particulate.”
But being located in a zone predisposed to higher levels of radon does not necessarily mean your home, business or local school will automatically contain elevated radon levels, experts warn. On the flip side, being in a zone shown to be less likely to test positive for radon does not mean buildings in those areas are safe from radon.
Maps, while helpful, are not the last word when it comes to radon, said Jim Bittner, a spokesman for Portland radon mitigation firm Cascade Radon.
“The mantra is always take the maps with a bit of a grain of salt,” Bittner said. “They’re based on data. Please, just test your home.”
Evergreen mitigation efforts underway
Evergreen Public Schools is currently in the midst of testing all its campuses for elevated radon levels after preliminary testing showed high levels at four campuses.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, any radon test reading above 4 picocuries per liter of air is unsafe for long-term exposure and requires mitigation. Tests in a Marrion Elementary School classroom showed levels of 4.2 picocuries per liter of air. A Sifton Elementary School gym and attached offices tested between 4 and 11.1 picocuries per liter of air. A classroom at Crestline Elementary School tested at 4.2 picocuries per liter of air. A music room at Orchards Elementary tested at 7.3 picocuries per liter of air.
Mitigation is still underway at Orchards and Marrion, but work is complete at Sifton and Crestline, according to the district website.
Department of Health data shows Crestline is in a tract where 39.5 percent of tests have shown elevated results and Orchards is in a tract where 24.4 percent of tests have shown elevated levels. Sifton and Marrion are less likely to test positive, with Marrion in a Census tract where 19.6 percent of radon test results show elevated levels and Sifton is in a tract where 7.1 percent of test results are elevated.
Testing is on hold this week for spring break, district spokeswoman Gail Spolar said. Radon tests should be conducted under normal conditions for the building, experts say.
As is the case with lead testing, there is no state or federal requirement on how often radon tests must be conducted. Evergreen began testing its campuses after running lead tests on fixtures last summer.
Vancouver schools OK
In 2013, Vancouver Public School’s latest round of testing for radon, no campuses were found to have elevated levels of radon. The district tests every five years, so it will retest in 2018, district spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said.
But some Vancouver schools are in the county’s highest danger zones for radon. In the Census tract covering Discovery Middle School and Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, for example, 66.7 percent of radon tests came back with elevated levels of radon. In Harney Elementary School’s Census tract, 58.7 percent of tests come back positive for elevated radon levels.
Mick Hoffman, the district’s chief of operations, said the district maintains a “very vibrant in-house maintenance program” in order to prevent radon before it becomes a problem. The district regularly changes filters in its heating and ventilation system, and tracks energy consumption at campuses every month, he said. If problems exist in the HVAC system, such as blockages or leaks, the district is able to catch it and fix it early, he said.
“That has been done intentionally with our district and it helps with issues like this,” Hoffman said.