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Portland Public Finds High Radon Levels In More Than 100 School Rooms

June 2, 2016

Even though the Portland Public Schools District continues to tackle revelations of lead in drinking water at several schools, another concerning toxin has emerged: radon.

Results from radon testing in school buildings released late Wednesday show classrooms across the district have elevated levels of the radioactive gas.

In a memo sent to school board members and Superintendent Carole Smith, facilities manager David Hobbs said results from testing initiated in March came in Wednesday.

"We sampled approximately 800 rooms," Hobbs said. "I received final results today that indicate 121 rooms exceeded the initial action level of 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) but were less than 10 pCi/L."

The results also showed nine rooms in six of the schools — Meek, Beaumont, Whitman, Roseway Heights, Lent and Marysville — exceeded that higher radon level.

Other schools with elevated radon levels include Astor, Peninsula, Vernon, King, Scott, Buckman, Wilcox, Rice, Lane, Binnsmead and Kelly.

Darren Siegel has a first grader at King, where seven rooms showed high levels of radon.

“Well, it’s a little scary knowing it’s the second issue that’s come up in the last couple of weeks. You know, now everybody is going to open up and say ‘ok, what else is there?," said Siegel.

"Of course we want to have everything tested and make sure the classrooms are safe – I’m sure they will do that. It’s a little bit worrying it waits until things start to happen, before they do that, instead of testing on a regular basis," said Siegel.

Jacob Avery's daughter is also a student at King. He pointed out the district has limited money and aging buildings. “I think we all know that these buildings are unsafe in lots of ways. So this is just another piece of the pie," said Avery.

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, according to the EPA, and results in about 21,000 related deaths each year.

The testing was focused on 26 of PPS' buildings that had high radon levels in 2001 and received remediation. Hobbs' memo did not say if other buildings in the district would be tested.

Radon exposure was a major issue in Portland schools in 2001, and contributed to the closure of Whitaker Middle School.

Hobbs said the district plans to follow EPA guidelines and carry out follow up tests. For the rooms with lower levels of radon, that testing will begin next school year. For the rooms with the higher levels, tests will begin Monday and last two to three days.

Radon can enter school buildings as it rises up through the soil by entering cracks and openings in the foundation, according to the EPA.

In 2001, PPS undertook remediation efforts at several schools, such as ventilating the soil and changing pressure levels in the schools to prevent radon seepage. Hobbs said he expects the district will take similar action for the affected schools. 

PPS rooms with radon readings between 4 and 10 pCi/L can be found here. Rooms that exceeded 10 pCi/L can be found here.


Eric Schmuttenmaer