13 Investigates: Area schools miss the mark on state recommendations for radon testing

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas.  It’s also a known carcinogen that’s the second leading cause of cancer behind smoking. 

In Illinois the state recommends schools test for the radioactive gas every five years.  But are stateline schools following that recommendation? 13 Investigates looked into five of our area’s biggest school districts to find out. 

Northern Illinois is a hot zone for radon. 

"Winnebago County Health Department Environmental health Supervisor Generally speaking Winnebago County has elevated radon levels on homes on average" says Winneabgo County Health Department Environmental Health Supervisor Ryan Kerch.  "From what we’ve seen, yeah, big parts of the county even whole zip codes have averages well into the 5.0 picocuries."

Which is well above the federal safety standard of 4.0.  Everyone is at risk for the health effects. The gas is produced when uranium breaks down in the soil.  It enters buildings, like homes or schools, through cracks in the walls or the foundation.

"It causes lung cancer," says Bill Angell.  "It’s the second leading cause of lung cancer."

Angell is a nationally renowned expert on radon and a professor at the University of Minnesota.  That state is currently re-examining its radon testing recommendations following an investigation by NBC affiliate Kare 11 in Minneapolis. Following that story, lawmakers in Minnesota are working to pass new legislation to change the recommendation to a requirement. 

 That investigation revealed only 53 of the 331 school districts in the state had tested for radon since 2012, despite state and federal recommendations.  So 13 Investigates wanted to find out if schools in our area are actively testing for radon.  We filed Freedom of Information Act Requests with five of the biggest schools districts in our area. 

The largest, the Rockford Public School district, has tested only 3 schools out of 46 in the last decade.  It tested Dennis Early Childhood in 2011, Roosevelt Communication Education Center in 2016, and Marsh Elementary in 2017. 

"That’s terrible," says Angell. "And it’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible to test only three schools in that period of time."

Rooms tested at Roosevelt and Marsh all came in below the safe level of 4.0. But the 2011 test at Dennis Early Childhood revealed three rooms tested above the safe level.  When 13 Investigates asked the district about these tests, they could not clarify whether anything was done to remove the radon. 

"We should be concerned about both children as well as staff, teachers and other staff, that are working in schools," says Angell.

13 Investigates also looked in to see if more districts in our area to see if they tested.  We found, they are not.   Belvidere, Freeport, Harlem, and Byron have not tested any schools in the past ten years. 

"In my opinion there are a number of states that require radon testing, and I think that’s very important.," says Angell. 

It’s something the districts say is cost prohibitive, and because it’s not required, they choose to spend their money on other mandated testing like lead and asbestos. 

"The reason they don’t is it will be a huge burden on the school district to pay for it," says commercial radon tester Steve Zimny.

Zimny says the issue is complicated and puts schools in a difficult position to manage unfunded costs.  But he’s also a former teacher, and spent 16 years in a school that was never tested.  

"It’s always in the back of my mind were there elevated levels of radon in that classroom, and if so what was that effect to me."

An effect that will remain uncertain for all students, staff, and families, until testing is complete. 

13 News reached out to all the school districts investigated. RPS 205 offered us this statement, ""As always, the safety of our students and staff is our No. 1 priority. Unfortunately without a directive from the state and without funding, districtwide testing is cost-prohibitive. If the state were to fund a mandate and require testing, the district would certainly comply." 

The Harlem School District offered us these words:  "Safety of our students and staff is of utmost importance to us.  We have been working with the North Park Water Department for the last two years to put a plan in place for lead testing in our schools.  As you may know, the State now requires lead testing in all elementary schools.  As a district, we had decided to voluntarily test for lead before the State had passed the requirement January 16, 2017.    All of our schools, including secondary schools, have been tested.  As we completed our lead testing, we have had preliminary discussions about radon testing.  According to Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), only 56 of 5400 schools in the State of Illinois have been tested.  Our plan is to research and investigate radon testing protocols during this next school year to determine our course of action here in Harlem.  We are aware of the IEMA Radon Testing Reference Manual for testing protocols and have begun our research there."

Other school districts shared similar sentiments, pointing to their limited budgets and the costs these tests pose.  They all state if the state were to mandate the test, they would comply with that requirement. 

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