by SARAH SQUIRES
You can't see it; you can't smell it. But long-term exposure to radon can kill; it's estimated to cause more than 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. annually, and in Southeast Minnesota, radon is more common than in other parts of the country.
The state highly recommends that public school districts test for radon gas every five years, more frequently when changes are made to heating and ventilating systems. Winona Area Public Schools completed testing for the radioactive gas and found levels higher than what is considered safe in two locations: of 219 test sites, one spot in a maintenance room in the basement of Central was found to have higher than acceptable levels, along with a spot in Jefferson's basement, above an electrical panel in a closet. Corrective measurements were taken at both sites and retests showed levels had fallen to an acceptable rate.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), radon is produced from the natural decay of uranium that is found in nearly all soil types. As it is broken down into gas, it moves up through the soil and can be inhaled indoors. "Your home can have radon whether it be old or new, well-sealed or drafty, and with or without a basement," MDH states. In Minnesota, two in five homes have radon levels that pose a significant health risk, and nearly 80 percent of Minnesota counties are considered high radon zones. Because of Minnesota's geology, and the way that heating and ventilating systems work to combat the cold climate, the Gopher state is vulnerable to higher radon levels indoors; however, regular testing and corrective actions can all but eliminate the threat posed by radon gas.
WAPS used an outside testing firm to conduct the tests from November 2016 to March 2017. Winter months, when the ventilation system is operating normally and widows and doors are closed, should generate radon level measurements considered "worst case" levels. Any areas that tests detect more than 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) should undergo action steps to reduce the level of the gas, according to the Institute for Environmental Assessment, Inc., which conducted WAPS' tests.
The room in Jefferson's basement produced a test result of 5.5 pCi/L; the basement in Central produced a result of 7.0 and 7.1 pCi/L. WAPS Director of Buildings and Grounds Bill O'Laughlin presented the test results to the School Board during its January meeting. He said adjustments were made at Jefferson, including adding an alarm to a fan to alert staff if it stops working. He said corrective measures and retests took a bit longer at Central, but that it then tested well below acceptable levels. The district won't have to retest, he said, until 2022 unless heating and ventilating system changes are implemented.
Board member Jeanne Nelson asked whether special education students are still housed in basement rooms. Special education students are no longer routinely housed in the basement at Jefferson, though there is a science lab space there that is sometimes occupied by students.
Want to test your home for the presence of radon? Residents in Minnesota and Wisconsin can contact their county department of health to obtain testing equipment. In Winona County, tests are available at the Household Hazardous Waste Building, 225 West Second Street. In Buffalo County, test kits are available at the Buffalo County Courthouse, Alma.