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Despite flunking EPA radon standards, MCPS says, "schools are safe"

Despite flunking EPA radon standards, MCPS says, “schools are safe” (MGN Online)

During an on-camera interview Tuesday, MCPS communications chief Brian Edwards stated that the 28 county schools, which were tested as having radon levels between 4 and 11.8 pc/l (picocuries per liter), are still "safe" for students and staff members alike.

"It's important that schools are safe and to indicate that schools are not safe is simply not truthful," Edwards stated within the halls of MCPS' main administration building.

Edwards' recorded interview came amid a growing health concern spurred by a five-page report that revealed MCPS tested its buildings for radon, but then failed to properly mitigate the potentially deadly gas in 28 of its 205 schools. It wasn't until after ABC7 News exposed the problem on Thanksgiving Eve that the first corrective steps were taken on what's expected to be a long road to recovery.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas stemming from the decay of uranium in rock and soil. While it can be found all across the United States, it is particularly prevalent in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. The affects of breathing radon over substantial periods of time has made it the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. each year, second only to tobacco, according to the EPA. Since it is an invisible and odorless gas, testing is the only way to confirm radon's presence. The EPA recommends that radon remediation occur whenever a building breaches 4 pc/l.

In spite of these reports, during Edwards' roughly ten-minute interview, he suggested an EPA finding that buildings are safe to occupy so long as radon does not exceed 100 pc/l.

"All the levels that were in the previous tests are well below the EPA levels of 100 [pc/l], which is well below the level at which the EPA says you need to be out of the classroom," Edwards added. "The levels are slightly elevated, they're not at a level where they say you need to get out of the building."

"I would say it's a bunch of bologna," remarked Jim Keilson, a radon inspector with Maryland Home Inspector's, Inc. "No disrespect to him or anyone else that buys into that jargon, but it's just not true. I would ask [Mr. Edwards], if he were here with me, to show me [the report]."

ABC7 News did locate a 1993 EPA report online, entitled "Radon Measurements in SchoolsRevised Addition," which put 100 pc/l as the amount at which people should evacuate a building, whereas its nationally recognized standard of 4pc/l is for long-term health conditions for students and faculty.

As a point of reference, Keilson says in his 30 years of radon testing and training, he has never seen a score top 63 pc/l. "100 pc/l is literally unheard of. If you walked inside a building with 100 pc/l, you'd be glowing in the dark," Keilson added.

According to a 20-page study published by the EPA titled, "A Citizen's Guide To Radon," if 1,000 non-smokers were exposed to 10 pc/l of radon for a lifetime, 15 could likely get lung cancer. For context, parts of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring currently emit 9.8 pc/l of radon, according to the five-page MCPS report.

"9.8 is terrible. It's a threat," said Simona Haver whose son is in the ninth grade at Springbrook HS. "I don't want my child anywhere near there, and I want people to take this as a real risk because clearly something will happen and may have happened already."

Although MCPS has apologized for withholding radon test results, it has not publicly identified who is responsible for the failure of action. It has, however, promised a quick and thorough retesting schedule for all 28 schools impacted. If retesting shows scores remain above the EPA's threshold of 4 pc/l, mitigation systems will be installed.

So did MCPS drop the figurative radon ball or do other school districts across the Washington Region share in its shortcomings?

Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Howard and Loudoun County Public Schools tell ABC7 News they have individually tested all of their schools for radon and all are currently below the EPA guideline of 4 pc/l, but ABC7 News has not seen individual testing results to confirm this.

D.C., Frederick and Prince George's County Public Schools have yet to respond to our request.

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