WICHITA, Kan. Alison Pike’s wall decoration in her Maize home looks like a Scrabble board. Her five children’s names are intertwined on large, wooden blocks. Their ages range from 19 months to 19 years old. Three of them attend elementary school in Maize.
Like all mothers, Pike does everything she can to protect her kids. When she found out her family’s previous home had high levels of radon, she said she was shocked.
“So I had been raising my family in a home full of radon for 12 years,” Pike said.
It wasn’t until she and her husband sold their home that she even heard of radon. The buyers asked for a test.
“Never,” Pike said when asked if she had thought of radon before. “Never even considered.”
Now, Pike is much more educated on radon as are many as they go through home purchases.
According to radon experts at Kansas State University, radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas and comes from the decay of uranium and radium in the soil.
“It’s a gas that can find its way into our homes and it increases our exposure to radiation that can increase our potential for developing lung cancer,” said K-State’s Director of Engineering Extension Bruce Snead. “So it’s a unique environmental health risk because it’s naturally occurring. There are no man-made sources.”
Pike says she had the sellers of her new home test for radon and it turned out, the home is just fine. But with three kids spending hours at Maize South Elementary each day, she realized she had no idea if there’s radon there.
FactFinder 12 found neither does the Maize School District and it’s far from alone.
We asked eight school districts in the Wichita-metro area if they’ve ever tested their schools for radon. Maize was among Hutchinson, Newton, Haysville, Derby, Goddard and Andover districts who say they’ve either never tested for radon or they don’t’ have any documentation of ever testing.
Wichita Public Schools has done radon testing and we got those results. However, the district has tested fewer than ten schools.
USD 259’s Safety Director Terri Moses explains what the district’s records show about the motivation behind some of the older tests, though they don’t give her extensive information.
“We know that the one test was done in 1991 was a part of a bigger study that the district took part in and we know that the test that was done in 2015 was the result of a concern that we think that was brought by the community,” Moses said.
K-State’s Snead said when it comes to schools, the reasons behind the testing could be anything.
“Sometimes, it is a parent or a teacher that has a residential radon experience that leads them to question what the levels are at the school. Sometimes it’s a school board member or a superintendent or a principal that has a similar kind of experience or learns about the issue,” Snead said.
When it comes to homes, like in Pike’s case, Kansas law says housing contracts must include a radon awareness statement and those who handle radon in homes have to be certified. Snead said research with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows at least 30%-35% of homes in Kansas are likely to have elevated levels of radon.
But when it comes to schools, there are no requirements or rules at all.
“There is no requirement for schools to test,” Snead said. “It varies from state to state. Different states have different requirements. The Surgeon General of the US has recommended that all homes be tested for radon as well as all schools.”
While there’s a recommendation from the Surgeon General, there’s no requirement in Kansas.
We asked Snead if that should concern parents.
“Well it’s certainly a reasonable concern. We talk to people every day from within Kansas and across the country who have found high levels of radon in their home and are concerned,” he said
FactFinder 12 found radon testing is pretty simple and costs roughly $10 per kit, depending on where you purchase it. The Sedgwick County Extension Office has kits for sale at wholesale cost and the number of tests depends on the area you’re testing.
“Typically one per room is a good rule of thumb,” Snead said. “With larger spaces that get up over 2,000 square feet, gymnasiums, cafeterias, libraries, then it’s one per 2000 square feet.”
Snead continued to detail how testing works.
“The test kits are simply opened up, you record the information, location, serial number, all the information relevant to connecting that test kit to that location and then deploy them for a period of anywhere from 4-5 days on up to a calendar year or an academic year depending on the approach that you’re taking,” he said.
“The single use test kits are then sealed up and shipped to a laboratory for analysis. They conduct the analysis to determine the radon concentration and then provide that report back to the client or the school district,” Snead finished.
At Eyewitness News, we tested one of our own rooms – a conference room where we conduct meetings at least twice a day. The directions on the test kit were simple and easy to follow and the results took
only a few days to get back to our newsroom. Thankfully for us, the radon levels were < 0.3 pCi/L (picocurie per liter). Snead says details of the measurement get into complicated science but that’s how radon is measured. The laboratory says results that are 0.5 pCi/L or less are essentially equivalent to fresh air. Anything above 5.0 pCi/L would likely necessitate mitigation.
That’s where things can get expensive. “It’s just tough if something’s only recommended to get school districts to invest the dollars necessary to conduct tests,” Snead said including that he’s sensitive to school budget issues.
Wichita’s district told FactFinder 12, money is a factor. We asked why the district hasn’t tested every building.
“Primarily because a lot of it, just like safety issues. We would love to have our buildings be as safe as possible but you have to, again, look at the needs of the community,” Moses said. “We are public access facilities, what works and what doesn’t work and make decisions with regards to financing.”
But those types of answers aren’t what Pike is looking to hear.
“Somebody needs to talk about it,” Pike said. “Somebody needs to make a change because these are our children. These are our children’s lives. And as parents, as educators, as administrators, we need to protect our children.”