Jonathan Dyer, Maine radon coordinator, stands just blocks away from the State House in Augusta on July 30. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Out of 285 schools in Maine, just one has been tested for cancer-causing radon within the past five years as recommended by the federal government, according to a review by the state that it completed at the request of the Bangor Daily News.

Between January 2015 and January 2020, only Mount Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor tested for the odorless, colorless, tasteless, radioactive gas, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer and can pose particular long-term risks for children. The 2018 testing at the school revealed that part of the building had a concentration of radon that exceeded recommended levels, which was then addressed.

When presented with the data, health and education officials expressed concern over the lack of testing, especially given their assumption that naturally occurring radon is already present in school buildings. They just don’t know how much.

There are higher average levels of the gas in Maine than the nation, and widespread testing 30 years ago showed that radon levels in some schools reached more than quintuple the rate considered safe.

“We have a problem with radon here. It’s how much you have, not whether you have it. It has to do with the radon in our bedrock,” said Jonathan Dyer, coordinator of the Maine Radon Program within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The gas, which comes from the decay of uranium buried deep underground, escapes through Maine’s fractured bedrock and up through cracks and gaps in basements. Just as the radon level in one home does not predict the radon level in a neighboring home, differing concentrations can be found throughout a larger school building. That’s why federal and state public health experts recommend that schools test every room that has contact with the ground. Each test typically costs $20 to $50, Dyer said.

Jonathan Dyer, Maine radon coordinator, sits on his porch in Augusta on July 30. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

And because radon concentrations can vary over time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends testing every five years.

But that is not happening in Maine.

Starting in January, at the BDN’s request, the state’s radon program began looking up 285 schools, to see if they had been tested for radon between 2015 and 2020. Radon test results are public, and anyone can call the state to see if their home or building has been tested in the past. The results are organized by the building’s address.

So the BDN compiled the addresses for two subsets of schools: the 16 public and private schools located in Bangor and the 269 public schools in Maine with small children, most often those in preschool or kindergarten, and at least six grades, where students are likely to spend more years of their lives. The BDN hoped to provide a snapshot of testing in buildings where children at a particularly vulnerable age might have more years of radon exposure.

The state finished the inquiry July 22. It found just one school on the list with a full round of radon testing over the last five years.

That school, Mount Desert Elementary School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, had six rooms tested in 2018, turning up mostly low results. One test, however, came back with a result of 4.4 picocuries per liter of air. Another turned up a concentration of 3.2 picocuries per liter of air.

INTERACTIVE CHART

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that people take action when radon concentrations reach 4 picocuries per liter of air — a level in health risk equal to smoking about eight cigarettes per day. The World Health Organization is more stringent and recommends action at 2.7 picocuries.

“The schools should test it and fix it. Absolutely. It’s that simple,” Dyer said. “Then take it one step further: Make sure the parents are involved.”

At the Mount Desert Island school, it was a parent who first reported a musty smell in the building. So the school did a round of testing for mold and, while it was at it, other airborne hazards, including odorless radon, said Marc Gousse, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System.

“We brought in an expert, did the testing. I recall at the time that we were not required, or we were not counseled, on putting in any equipment, if you will. Frequent cleaning, ventilation, that was the guidance we were given,” he said.

And the source of the smell? It was a mop, said Principal Gloria Delsandro. The school got a new one.

“Without finding records of when the last tests were in the past, I’ve been slowly trying to take care of all these things,” said Delsandro, who has been principal for four years. But she understands why other schools don’t test regularly. Administrators are “asked to do a lot on a daily basis. I think the scope of responsibility is quite large,” she said.

To reduce the concentration of radon in the air, buildings sometimes need mitigation systems installed that divert radon gas through a pipe beneath the basement floor to outside the structure. They usually cost from $3,000 to $8,000, Dyer said. But sometimes, as with Mount Desert Elementary School, buildings just need to clean or adjust their HVAC systems to take care of the problem. The licensed professionals who install mitigation systems are listed online.

In addition, the state’s radon program found that Pownal Elementary School in Cumberland County, serving prekindergarten through grade five, had tested one room in 2019, which returned a low result of 0.8 picocuries per liter of air. Principal Lisa Demick did not return three requests for comment last week.

Radon is unlikely to cause immediate harm. Instead, the risk is to children’s long-term health.

Due to children’s lung shape and small size, and their faster breathing rates, they are estimated to receive higher radiation doses than adults when breathing in radon-infused air. Therefore, their risk of developing lung cancer in the future is greater, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That risk increases if they are also exposed to tobacco smoke.

Deb Violette stands outside her home in Augusta on July 30. Violette, a lung cancer survivor, learned she had a large amount of radon in her home. She founded Free ME from Lung Cancer in 2012. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Deb Violette of Augusta was active and healthy in 1998 when she received what she described as a terrifying diagnosis: stage 3 lung cancer. She was 44.

Unable to find any local support groups or Maine organizations devoted to lung cancer, she reached out to the American Lung Association, she said. It responded by saying it would send her a smoking cessation kit, assuming that she smoked. She didn’t.

After three rounds of chemotherapy, surgery to remove part of her lung and 25 rounds of radiation, she survived. During one workup in Boston, her oncologist asked if her home had ever been tested for radon.

“I didn’t even know what that was,” Violette said. But after testing she discovered that both her air and water surpassed the EPA’s radon limit for a safe home.

There is no way to know whether radon led to her cancer, she said. It could have been her genetic makeup. Or it could have been the environment in which she grew up, when it was common for teachers to smoke in schools and shoppers to smoke in clothing stores. Or it could have been a combination of all those factors.

But by testing she was then able to lower the radon levels in her home. And, determined to increase awareness, she founded Free ME from Lung Cancer in 2012. The nonprofit raises money for lung cancer research, education, advocacy and community support, and some of its funds help people with low incomes test for radon in their homes and take action if they have unsafe conditions.

Given estimates that one in three homes in Maine has high-enough radon levels to warrant mitigation, it’s most certainly in the schools as well, said Violette, now 66. “These test kits are only $30. Put them in the school,” she said. “It’s not an expensive thing, but it will cut down on disease and death.”

The last time Maine conducted widespread testing of schools was 30 years ago. The testing between 1988 to 1991 revealed that 241 public schools — more than a third — had one or more rooms of 4 picocuries per liter or higher of radon, according to records kept by the state.

Dedham School on Rt.1A in Dedham. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Eighteen of those schools had levels that exceeded 20 picocuries per liter as of 1991, including some in Portland, Yarmouth, Sanford, Whitefield, Hiram, Hallowell, West Paris and Bingham. One was Dedham School in Hancock County. The school has not been tested within the last five years.

The school, however, added a radon mitigation system around the time that Jeff Paul became principal in 2017, he said, though it wasn’t immediately apparent why because he couldn’t find a definitive record for the last time the school was tested.

But “that will definitely be on our radar as something to do as we move forward,” Paul said. “I’m very confident with the new mitigation system that we do have in place that we’re in good shape here in Dedham.”

It’s impossible to know current levels without testing. “It is a prudent and reasonable thing to expect that schools would be providing a radon-safe environment, and the only way to know that is to test,” said Christine Crocker, executive director of the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council.

Crocker and others also emphasized the importance of testing homes for radon, given that is where children are likely to spend the most time. Dyer, with the state’s radon program, envisions a scenario in which science teachers involve their students in testing their school; maybe those students then get their parents interested in testing their homes.

“There are so many uncertainties in estimating radon risks for children in schools,” said Andrew Smith, the state toxicologist. “Unless schools are uniquely high in indoor air radon relative to homes, which I am not aware of any evidence to suggest this, the far bigger exposure potential is likely to be their home environment, and we know radon testing of homes is low.”

In recent years, two separate legislative efforts to require schools to test for radon have failed. The most recent bill, LD 1079, passed last year but recommends, rather than requires, that schools test for radon. The sticking point has been money.

Schools are already stretched to cover maintenance and minor capital improvement costs, especially in Bangor where every school building is decades old, said Superintendent Betsy Webb. The state has not offered funding for radon testing, and no Bangor school has been tested for radon in the last five years.

Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb speaks to students at Fruit Street School on Jan. 10. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“We had a facilities assessment done and, even if we just upgrade systems in the next 10 years, you could do that at $80 million. It sounds like a lot, and it is a lot, but that’s for 10 buildings that are 50 to 100 years old,” Webb said.

Without resources, and without a mandate, while managing the many needs of schools, Webb said she is not surprised that they aren’t testing for radon.

To test every public school on a rolling basis over a five-year period could cost the state about $362,400 per year, said Lance Boucher, the senior division director for state public policy for the American Lung Association, which lobbied in favor of LD 1079. The number comes from assuming 604 public schools would each need 30 tests that would cost $100 per test.

While he believes schools would likely pay less for the tests and require fewer of them, the high-end estimate is still “a minor cost to make sure kids aren’t being exposed to a cancer-causing gas while they’re getting their education,” Boucher said. Connecticut, Florida and Colorado require radon testing in schools.

COVID-19 has dominated educators’ conversations as they plan how or whether to return to school in the fall. But rather than shutting down talk about radon, several officials said it’s a good time to raise the topic. That’s because schools are figuring out how to increase airflow and filter out more airborne particles.

“Right now I think this information is squarely in all of our sights because of COVID,” Gousse, the Mount Desert Island superintendent, said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of attention paid to testing, both water and air, and we should. It’s the right thing to do.”

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.