Oswego School Board Calls for More Radon Tests at Boulder Hill Elementary
The aggressive plan agreed to Thursday would see tests conducted early next week, and, if needed, mitigation procedures enacted before school starts on Aug. 24.
The Oswego School Board unanimously agreed Thursday night to an aggressive schedule of radon testing at Boulder Hill Elementary School, to determine whether staff and students will be at risk when school starts later this month.
And board members were clear: no expense will be spared to make sure the building is safe.
The school board called Thursday’s special meeting amid public concern over radon tests performed in May, June and July at Boulder Hill Elementary. The first two of those tests, conducted by a subcontractor of the district’s architecture firm Wight and Company at the request of Boulder Hill’s administration, found high levels of radon in five classrooms.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends action when levels reach 4.0 picocuries of radon per liter of air. The original two tests found levels as high as 11.8 picocuries per liter.
However, as Superintendent Dan O’Donnell informed the board Thursday night, the company that performed those tests is not licensed to detect radon in commercial buildings. This fact, O’Donnell said, was pointed out to the school district on Thursday afternoon by Patrick Daniels, a radon expert with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
“IEMA would not consider any measurement performed by an unlicensed individual as valid,” Daniels wrote in an email sent Thursday afternoon.
Furthermore, according to Eric Lewandowski, owner of Professional Radon Systems and a licensed radon mitigator, those first two tests were performed incorrectly and should be thrown out.
“The second test had the HVAC system off,” he said. “That test was invalid right off the bat.”
Radon tests, Lewandowski said, should be performed under conditions that mirror the building's everyday use. Otherwise, he said, radon levels could be read as artificially higher or lower.
The third test, performed in July by licensed company Radon Detection Specialists, found no radon levels above the EPA standard. But since prolonged exposure to radon—a naturally occurring gas that cannot be seen, smelled or tasted—has been proven to cause lung cancer, the school board isn’t taking any chances.
Their plan of action begins today. Boulder Hill Elementary’s heating and cooling system will be re-calibrated, either today or over the weekend. Then, from Monday to Wednesday, Radon Detection Specialists will re-test every room in the school. The company was given the go-ahead to use specialized equipment to track hourly radon levels in every room that tested high earlier this summer.
A second, as-yet-undetermined company will also be hired to conduct simultaneous testing. Results from those tests are expected on Thursday, and the board will call another special meeting to review the results.
And should any rooms come back with high levels, board members said they are prepared to mitigate immediately.
Several board members said Thursday they were ready to order mitigation right there and then, but Lewandowski advised against it. Mitigation, he said, is usually the last step, and involves drilling and suctioning the air from areas with high levels of radon.
Doing so without an accurate picture of the problem, he said, could actually lead to issues in other parts of the building.
Kirsten Schmidt, of Radon Detection Specialists, said that long-term testing is the “gold standard” of radon detection. And that testing—which the district had already agreed to at Boulder Hill—can take anywhere from 90 days to a year.
“You need to get to know a building over a period of time,” she said.
But with the first day of school scheduled for Aug. 24, and parents urging quick action, the board decided on a plan that will, if all goes well, see all work completed in Boulder Hill Elementary before students arrive. And if it doesn’t go well, district administration is already working on a backup plan.
“I believe the best course of action for the safety of our kids is to conduct more tests as quickly as possible,” said Board Member Mike Scaramuzzi. “Then, if we need to take action, we will take action immediately.”
Teachers at Boulder Hill will be informed that they can choose whether to return to the school before their first day on Aug. 22. Board members asked district staff to provide alternate work sites for any employees who feel uncomfortable working in the building.
During Thursday’s meeting, Schmidt tried to ease fears about radon. She said it takes years to build up enough exposure to cause health problems, and pointed out that smaller concentrations of radon—about 1.6 picocuries per liter, on average—are in the air we breathe every day.
“It’s years and years of exposure,” she said. “You don’t just walk into a house and walk out with cancer.”
The board plans to continue the discussion at a special meeting Thursday, Aug. 18.