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I-TEAM: Could your child’s school be exposing them to a cancer-causing gas?

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CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – When you drop your child off at school in the morning, you assume they’re in a safe, healthy environment, but danger could be lurking in the air.

Radon is a toxic, radioactive gas, that develops from the breakdown of soil and rock. It seeps into buildings and the air we breathe through floor and wall joints, crawl spaces, basements, and even private wells. Once inside, the gas starts to accumulate.

Chronic exposure could be deadly and has been linked to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. Victims usually don’t realize they have been exposed until years later when it’s too late.

Karen Ahearn of Ahearn Radon Testing is a Certified Radon Measurement Specialist and member of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists. “There is not a house, or a building, that won’t have some level of radon.”

Ahearn estimates one in four buildings in western Massachusetts have radon levels above guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA-recommended amount of radon is 4.0 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) indoors.

TAMARA SACHARCZYK: “Should we be testing our schools for radon?”
KAREN AHEARN: “They should test, it’s a good idea because the kids and the teachers are spending a lot of time there.”

The EPA estimates that 70,000 classrooms nationwide are at risk for radon, yet there’s no federal law mandating schools test for it. The agency recommends schools test every five years, but many districts ignore those guidelines.

The 22News I-Team requested records from the Department of Public Health and discovered most schools in western Massachusetts don’t test at all. DPH is required to test a minimum of three public schools in Massachusetts every year, through the EPA’s State Indoor Radon Grant.

Over the past 12-years, 44 schools in Massachusetts have tested for radon through that program, none of those schools are in western Massachusetts. The I-Team wanted to know whether any local districts test on their own, so we called over a dozen school districts across western Massachusetts.

Dean Tech in Holyoke is the only school that confirmed they’ve tested for radon in recent years. Their results showed no high levels of radon. Some superintendents never even got back to us, despite multiple emails and phone calls. Chicopee is the only district, that took our investigation as a wake-up call.

Scott Chapdelaine is the city’s Director of Facilities. “Testing for radon was never really on our radar. After talking to the superintendent and getting some prices on getting it done. It seems like it’s something we are going to do in Chicopee,” he said.

Other school districts told the I-Team they have no plans to test for radon, and there’s no state law requiring them to do so. We went to your lawmakers, to find out why.

“I think it’s just one of those things that not everybody has thought about.” Brian Ashe represents the 2nd Hampden District at the State House.

He told the I-Team, he doesn’t think there’s enough awareness around radon. “We need to get the information out there and making sure it’s in the right hands, and understand it’s something that we can do something about.”

Ashe has co-sponsored a bill, called “An Act Promoting Radon Testing.” The proposal would require public schools to undergo routine radon testing, and mandate mitigation plans for unacceptable radon levels.

Those laws are already in place in Rhode Island and Connecticut. “If there’s something we can do that’ll help kids in the future, prevent them from having diseases, if we can do that, why wouldn’t we?”

Right now, schools in Massachusetts aren’t required to take mitigation measures, even if the state has found radon levels exceed EPA guidelines.

The I-Team discovered, at least ten of the 44 schools tested for radon in eastern and central Massachusetts over the past 12-years, have had levels that exceed EPA guidelines. In one of those schools, levels were 11 times greater than what’s considered safe.

According to the DPH, the grant money they offer for radon testing is only available to districts that apply for it, and a majority of requests come from communities in EPA Radon Zone 1, which includes Essex, Middlesex, and Worcester Counties. Those counties have a predicted average indoor radon screening level that’s greater than 4 pCi/L.

Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties are in Zone 2 for radon, which means although radon isn’t as problematic, the average indoor radon screening level can still range from 2 to 4 pCi/L, levels that are considered moderate

The I-Team asked 12 local school districts whether they rest for radon, here are the results:

Agawam Public Schools – No specific radon testing has been done over the past 5-years.

Springfield Public Schools – “Any new property we have purchased has had limited phase 1 and 2 air quality testing and none of these reported an issue for Radon. We have no reported issues at our facilities that would require the need to test for Radon.”
– Pat Sullivan, Director of Facilities

West Springfield Public Schools – No radon testing in at least 4-years.

Westfield Public Schools – No radon testing in recent years.

Amherst- Pelham Regional School District – No response after several attempts to contact district.

Ludlow Public Schools – “Ludlow is fully in compliance with state and federal regulations for testing in our schools. There is currently no requirement to test for Radon, therefore we do not.”
-Superintendent Todd Gazda

Mohawk Trail Regional School District – No response after several attempts to contact district.

Holyoke Public Schools – Dean Tech tested for radon in 2013 when the Science labs were renovated. The results showed all radon screening concentrations were well below federal guidelines and therefore no action was needed. (Screenings showed levels at 1.0 or lower.)
-Judy Taylor, spokesperson for Holyoke Public Schools

Greenfield Public Schools – No radon testing in recent years.

Chicopee Public Schools – No radon testing in recent years. Scott Chapdelaine, the Director of Facilities told the I-Team they now plan on testing in the near future. He was the only person we called who volunteered to do an on-camera interview on the topic.

East Longmeadow Public Schools – No radon testing in recent years.

Easthampton Public Schools – No response after several attempts to contact district.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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