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Schools: Radon no excuse to play hooky

The Medford School District is taking steps to reduce radon levels in several classrooms after recent testing showed levels slightly above standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The test results aren’t an excuse to play hooky, the district says, and the students will be safe.

As required by a 2016 state law, the school district has begun testing classrooms for the naturally occurring but unhealthful gas, finding most schools within safe levels and others fixable with improvements, mainly to HVAC systems.

The highest levels of radon were found at Griffin Creek Elementary School, which had five classrooms exceeding “actionable” limits. Three rooms were brought in line with easy remedies, said Medford School District Chief Operations Officer Brad Earl. Fixes can include sealing of foundation cracks, framing and foam-sealing of pipe casings, or caulking of windows.

Radon levels in two other Griffin Creek classrooms, he adds, will be fixed by replacement of an aging HVAC system that serves them. A second round of testing found three more classrooms where numbers had edged up.

The strategy of the Oregon Healthy & Safe Schools Plan is to keep radon under 4.0 picacuries per liter of air, a limit set by the EPA.

The test results for each classroom are posted at medford.k12.or.us/Page/3780, and show the highest readings: South Medford High School, 1.6; McLoughlin Middle School, 0.8; Roosevelt Middle School, 1.7; Jackson Elementary, 1.3; Howard Elementary, 1.9; and Griffin Creek Elementary, 6.2, with other classrooms at 5.7, 5.5, 5.0 and 4.4.

“We can’t guarantee the third round will get them all below the action level,” Earl said, “but we’re confident we’ll do it this school year or quicker.”

Earl says the school is safe for children to attend, as the Oregon Health Authority notes “it takes long-term exposure to high levels, and these are not considered high levels. Most kids’ time is outside or at other places, so we’re confident they’re fine and safe.”

As to why Griffin Creek is a radon standout, Earl says it occurs naturally “from pockets of uranium under the earth, and we have no way of knowing where it will occur. We just built four new classrooms, and there’s speculation maybe we disrupted the earth,” making it emerge.

Better ventilation is the main approach, especially in this age of well insulated buildings which save energy but reduce inflow of fresh air, says Earl.

“For fixes, first, we’re looking for the low-hanging fruit, the immediate and low-cost fix with windows, then we look at HVAC,” said Ron Havniear, manager of facilities and support services. “We can affect it by increasing fresh air, but that’s a challenge because it lowers the temperature.

“We can also create a more positive air pressure environment, which keeps air infiltration at bay, or we can increase the run time of equipment, starting at 3 in the morning instead of 5.”

Radon is an invisible radioactive gas created by the decay of uranium. It is found worldwide, is present in most homes and is the leading cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers. It travels through soil and ground water, entering buildings mainly through cracks or openings in foundations, said school district spokeswoman Danielle Craig, in a statement. In the air, it is harmless.

The state gave schools until 2021 to accomplish radon goals, but MSD started two years ago, Craig said, and that’s why fixes are being applied early in the game. MSD has started consulting with other schools in the valley on how best to fix radon problems.

MSD has tested 11 schools and has eight to go.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

contributed photoBrad Earl, Medford School District chief operations officer, holds test canisters from Griffin Creek school classrooms that they sent to a lab to be tested.