2/08 tahoe mt. news
By Kathryn Reed
Vials smaller than the average prescription pill container are often free for the taking at Douglas County School District meetings when radon is on the agenda. The device is for parents to test their homes for the naturally occurring radioactive gas.
Radon discussions have been part of nearly every DCSD meeting this school year. On Feb. 12 the board is expected to decide if active soil depressurization is the next step.
Parents are alarmed with radon levels at Zephyr Cove Elementary School to the point they want the site closed and Kingsbury Middle School to remain open in the fall.
District officials believe the steps they’ve taken have quashed the problem. Results from the high efficiency particulate (HEPA) air filters say so.
“Neither we nor EPA standards suggest any further mitigation. However, we are recommending that radon progeny be retested every one to two years to make sure nothing changes,” Dirk Roper, school district consult, wrote the Tahoe Mountain News.
Roper, general manager for Fallon Heating & Air Conditioning in Carson City, is one of two certified radon mitigation specialists in Nevada.
“The HEPA filters have worked. I would feel comfortable putting my child up there,” said Holly Luna, DCSD director of business services. “No matter what we do to remediate, you can’t get to zero. The results indicate there is no need for further mitigation.”
Luna said the EPA mandates retesting in two years. She expects the district to test periodically during the next two years.
What’s all the fuss?
Radon is often found in areas like Lake Tahoe that have decomposed granite. It’s in the soil and usually enters a building through cracks in the foundation.
Long-term exposure can lead to lung cancer. At one board meeting it was revealed that teachers would likely be the ones to contract cancer because of prolonged exposure. No former student or employee has been diagnosed with lung cancer related to radon, according to the district.
“We have good human studies that show people exposed to higher levels of radon have higher (incidences) of lung cancer,” said Adrian Howe, radiation physicist with the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. “You can’t point to one cause. Risk estimates are based on lifetime exposure.”
It is also impossible to pinpoint radon as the cause of a person’s lung cancer.
Dee Robinson, 55, taught at Zephyr Cove for about 25 years, having retired in 2005. In the late 1980s she wrote a letter to the district about the various health issues with staff at that time – no lung cancer – and never got a response. She admits parents have been contacting her in hopes of drawing a link from radon to various illnesses. But science negates their wishful thinking.
“Lung cancer is the only known effect on human health from exposure to radon in air. Thus far, there is no evidence that children are at greater risk of lung cancer than are adults,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s website says.
Radon and its progeny
A major disagreement between some parents and the district is what to test for and what to mitigate for – radon or radon progeny.
“Radon progeny is the more important, specifically polonium-218 and polonium-214. These two ions are believed to cause nearly all of the health effects associated with radon,” Roper said.
It’s the progeny that can be inhaled, which in turn can pose health risks. The progeny is what radon gas decays into.
The state made no recommendations to the district about mitigation measures. Howe said active soil depressurization is the primary tool because it has been proven to reduce radon and therefore progeny. This procedure deals with addressing the radon gas before it enters a building, while HEPA filters work on ridding a room of the progeny.
However, Howe went onto say the “real concern is radon progeny.”
Howe is a bit skeptical of how effective HEPA filters work. He said research is more theoretical than concrete.
Nonetheless, the continued use of HEPA filters at the Lake schools of Douglas County are reducing the progeny levels to what is call “acceptable.”
The words “safe” and “acceptable” have at times been interchanged in discussions, when in reality the EPA says exposure to any radon is unsafe. The problem is that radon occurs naturally – is outdoors and indoors – and therefore unavoidable.
At the Feb. 12 meeting the board will get the rundown on how active soil depressurization works. Essentially the concrete slab is penetrated and the radon is sucked out through the roof while a fan is continuously running. Howe said it’s a low wattage unit that won’t severely cause utility bills to spike.
Roper will not have a cost-estimate on the potential project ready for Feb. 12.
To date the district has spent about $10,000 on radon issues since November 2006, according to Luna. It comes out of the capital improvement fund and cannot be covered by insurance. She said it’s up to the board to figure out how active soil depressurization would be paid for if that is the chosen route.
Parent Greg Felton said he and others don’t understand why the active soil depressurization wasn’t done to begin with. He uses the leaky roof analogy – that using HEPA filters is like using buckets to catch the water from the leak, whereas active soil depressurization would be like fixing the leaky roof.
Luna said the district chose HEPA filters as the first course because of the consultant’s recommendation.
“At the time of our initial involvement we were up against TRPA’s winter moratorium for disturbing soil. Even though our preliminary test of progeny indicated no need for mitigation, parents were demanding action and DCSD wanted to make sure they were taking the maximum appropriate action, not the minimum,” Roper said as to why HEPA filters went in. “Air circulation in general, and HEPA filtration in specific, has been shown to be very effective at removing progeny from the air, although it does not change radon levels. We felt that an immediate impact could be made on progeny levels while further testing was done to determine if traditional mitigation was indicated.”
Kelly Krolicki and a team of parents meet every Monday night to discuss the long-term issues. Krolicki did not return phone calls. It is not known if she will engage her husband, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, in the local radon fight.
“They are addressing this through the legislative process and politicians,” said Greg Felton, a parent in the thick of the radon battle. “I’m more involved in pushing locally for board of trustees of the district to know that we are not happy with the safety levels they are accepting and the representation we are getting.”
He is so frustrated that he is taking his cause to the Douglas County Grand Jury. As of early February, he had a lengthy rough draft detailing his criticisms of DCSD that he would like the grand jury to address.
Felton admits that collectively the parents have not come to a determination as to what level of radon or radon progeny at Zephyr Cove would be acceptable. He said he knows of one parent who is considering some sort of lawsuit against the district.
Denese Dunt has pulled her son out of Zephyr Cove. He is at a private school in the Carson Valley.
“I don’t have confidence in the school district,” Dunt said. “I also don’t feel my son was being educated well at Zephyr Cove.”
She said she’s in a carpool with six children from the Lake, adding that the other five were pulled from Zephyr Cove before the school year started.
KMS v. ZCES
The elephant in the room when radon is being discussed is the issue of consolidation. At the start of the next school year Zephyr Cove is slated to be a K-6, Whittell a 7-12 and Kingsbury shuttered.
Information is murky about whether Zephyr Cove’s deed allows it to be sold. When the Whittell estate gave the property to the school district, initial restrictions prohibited the sale. Some say enough time has lapsed for those strings to no longer exist.
The district says the deed’s language is convoluted and deferred comments to their attorney. He was out of town until Feb. 11 – past deadline.
Some parents have proposed a K-12 site at Whittell. Some would like Kingsbury Middle School to be used for a couple years while Zephyr Cove is cleaned up, or demolished and rebuilt.
Money and location are the reasons Superintendent Carol Lark has given to reconfigure the schools as stated above.
Parent Brian Swoger has a website -- http://snowday.us/snow/ -- where he details what should be done in the district.
Other radon info
Howe and Roper are in complete agreement that exposure to radon is more likely in one’s home and that’s where people should focus first. People often spend more time in a bedroom than any other room in a 24-hour period.
“I hope I have made it clear that I believe that DCSD had taken even more than the recommended steps in dealing with radon at Zephyr Cove Elementary School,” Roper said. “I consider ZCES to be very safe. It has progeny levels lower than my own home. I would send my children and my grandchildren there without hesitation or reservation.”
In Lake Tahoe Unified, radon test results show a need for retesting in some areas.
“We tested every classroom and every occupied space in all our buildings with the exception of rest rooms and corridors,” said Steve Morales, LTUSD facilities director. “We did the test with the placement of charcoal activate filters that absorb the radon gas that is present in the ambient air.”
However, he would not disclose which schools or rooms would be retested. He isn’t making it public until he addresses the school board this month.
Websites worth checking out: