A new bill in the state House would require every school district in Pennsylvania to test for radon and inform parents of the results.
Blamed for 20,000 deaths per year, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers in the United States.
Levels in Pennsylvania are considered especially high nationally. An estimated 40 percent of homes in the state have radon levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s action guideline of 4 picocuries per liter of air.
A naturally occurring odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas, radon enters buildings through foundation cracks and becomes concentrated indoors, where people are most at risk.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection encourages all homeowners, school officials and public and private building owners in Pennsylvania to test for radon, but schools are not legally required to do so.
“Because of our geology, nearly every county in Pennsylvania has locations of high radon levels. DEP recommends that all home and building owners test for radon, including schools,” said DEP spokeswoman Deborah Klenotic.
Similar efforts to mandate radon detection in schools have failed in the past.
“Though there may be a little bit of cost, I think our safety definitely outweighs the price tag,” said state Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, who’s sponsoring the current push.
To get the most accurate results, tests for radon would have to be done in every room of a school building. Each kit costs about $20.
Briggs’ bill does not offer a mechanism for covering that cost — nor the cost of remediating any problems that are found.
“We could try to fund that requirement, and we can try to encourage our schools to take an active participation as well,” he said.
Under the bill, schools would be required to test for radon every five years. Newly constructed or remodeled school buildings would be required to test within 19 months of occupancy.
Only nine states, including New Jersey, now require testing for radon in schools.
The nonprofit Healthy Schools PA released a study last year that focused on environmental issues for schools. Of the school districts in Pennsylvania that responded to their Right-to-Know requests, only 31 percent tested for radon. Of those, 28 percent reported levels above the acceptable limit.
High levels of radon have been found in schools across the country, according to the EPA. A nationwide survey found nearly one in five schools have short-term radon levels above recommended levels.
The EPA estimated that more than 70,000 classrooms have high short-term radon levels.
The risk for lung cancer in children resulting from exposure to radon may be almost twice as high as the risk to adults, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The danger is at least 20 times higher if children are also exposed to tobacco smoke.