A Southwest Florida lawmaker is calling for more radon testing in schools after an NBC2 investigation.
Last week, we told you that radon is not often tested in Southwest Florida schools, even though it’s federally recommended that Florida schools test for radon every 5 years.
Because Florida law fails to mandate that testing, the NBC2 Investigators found that most schools aren’t doing it.
“I definitely want to explore the idea of doing more frequent testing,” said Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R), Fort Myers. Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen said she didn’t know regular testing wasn’t taking place in schools, until she watched our reports.
“I was surprised. Again, I didn’t know to the degree, that radon might be present, nor did I know the degree to which radon was a health risk, but now I’m more educated on that and I was a little bit surprised that we didn’t have more frequency of testing,” said Rep. Fitzenhagen.
“If there’s something that could be seeping through the floors, they should at least check for it, once a year,” said Lee Grooms, Lee County parent. NBC2 told Grooms about radon, the radioactive gas that can enter homes or schools from soil or building materials, and seep thru cracks and openings in the foundation.
Radon is colorless, odorless and tasteless. The CDC says it’s the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Lee Grooms’ daughter’s school, Bayshore Elementary, hasn’t tested for radon since 1997.
“It’s kind of scary to think she is here all day while I’m working and she can be breathing something in,” said Grooms. The NBC2 Investigators pulled records from the Florida Department of Health, dating back to 1994.
Out of the 83 public and private schools that have been tested for radon in Lee County, 64 of them or 77% have not been tested since 1996. Out of the 42 that have been tested in Collier County, 37 or 88% of them have not been tested since 1996. And get this – the schools aren’t doing anything wrong because mandatory radon testing is not required in either county.
“To me as a public health expert, that’s frightening,” said Matthew Schabath, PhD, epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa.
Dr. Schabath was shocked when we told him about the lack of radon testing taking place in Southwest Florida schools.
“The data shows unequivocally there are pockets throughout the state of Florida in any given county, even those low risk counties, where you can find a given building or a given room in a building where you have very high levels of radon,” said Dr. Schabath.
Dr. Schabath says this is not a one time measurement. Just because a classroom tested low for radon 20 years ago doesn’t mean it will test low today. And that goes both ways — a classroom that once tested high for radon, could show low levels today.
“It’s like a flowing river. It can ebb and flow and its something that requires constant measurements over time,” said Dr. Schabath. Radon testing is required in Charlotte County because of where it’s located on this Florida Radon Protection Map, but it’s only required in brand-new schools. And, if elevated radon levels are found, mitigation is recommended but it’s not required.
“The last testing we’ve done are the two newest schools that we built,” said Mike Riley, spokesperson for Charlotte County Public Schools. “I want to emphasize that we follow the law and whatever comes down from the state.”
Public records confirm that radon tests were performed at lemon bay high school in 2016 and meadow park elementary in 2018. And both schools had low levels of radon.
What determines a low or high level of radon? The gas is measured in picocuries per liter and levels of 4 or more is considered hazardous. Since 1994, the NBC2 Investigators found 23 schools in Southwest Florida that had classrooms with radon levels over 4 picocuries.
In Charlotte County, we found one classroom that hit 38 and another that hit 48.
“Is this a legitimate concern?” NBC2 Investigator asked Dr. Schabath.
“Oh absolutely. I mean this goes back to the analogy. Would you fill a room with cigarette smoke and let your kid sit in there?” said Dr. Schabath.