Deadly gas could be lurking in Northeast Ohio classrooms: 19 Investigates

Deadly gas could be lurking in Northeast Ohio classrooms: 19 Investigates

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - 19 News is investigating how a deadly gas could be lurking in our schools.

What is radon and how does it cause lung cancer?

Radon is a colorless, odorless, cancer-causing gas that kills more people each year than drunk drivers, according to researchers.

Many home buyers test for radon, but what about schools, where children are spending a large chunk of their day? 19 News found a majority of districts in Northeast Ohio aren’t testing and we wanted to know why.

Giving birth to her baby girl was the greatest moment of Bobbi Johnson's life. Hours later, one simple test will turn that moment from one life-changing experience to another.

“I was diagnosed six years ago when my daughter was born,” Johnson said.

Post-delivery CT scans identified advanced stage lung cancer. Johnson was told she likely wouldn’t live past her daughter’s fifth birthday.

Bobbi Johnson cancer scan
Bobbi Johnson cancer scan

“My prognosis then of advance stage lung cancer was about a 20% chance of making it to my five-year mark,” said Johnson.

She was shocked, heartbroken, and confused.

“Gosh. I’ve never been a smoker, so why have I been diagnosed with lung cancer?” Johnson asked.

Her doctors pointed to a cause she never imagined.

“I knew nothing about radon gas, what it was,” she said.

Radon is a deadly invisible, radioactive gas. You can’t smell it or taste it.

That’s why advocates like Kevin Stewart with the American Lung Association, say many people don’t even know it exists.

Jarod's Law used to enforce radon testing, but not anymore

“Individuals can be exposed for many years, not show any ill effects. The problem with lung cancer is that once you start to experience symptoms, there’s an excellent chance that the lung cancer is already advanced,” Stewart said.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, killing an estimated 21,000 people in the US each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The American Lung Cancer Association says people who have never smoked make up approximately 2,900 of the estimated 21,000 radon-related lung cancer deaths each year.

Maps and research from the Environmental Protection Agency show the majority of Ohio has high levels of radon.

EPA Radon Map
EPA Radon Map (Source: EPA)

More than 50 counties are in Zone 1, meaning soil has tested above unsafe levels.

“Radon doesn’t really care where it exposes people,” Stewart said.

What are the Ohio laws involving radon?

In Ohio, the only radon laws revolve around home sales. Sellers are required to disclose any known radon hazards, which is why you may see a radon mitigation system installed in your home.

Ohio has no requirements for radon testing in schools, or at least not anymore.

In 2004 Jarod’s Law was passed. It required, among other things, schools test for radon within five years. The law is named after Jarod Bennett. The 6-year-old Cincinnati area boy died when he was hit and killed by a folded-up cafeteria table. The law also required districts to replace things like outdated bleachers, carpets, and exhaust systems.

Jarod's Law
Jarod's Law

The law was repealed in 2009. Many districts cited overwhelming expenses to keep up with certain aspects of the law.

Do schools in Northeast Ohio test for radon?

19 News reached out to every public school district in Northeast Ohio. That’s nearly 150 school districts to see if they test for radon.

Here’s what we found:

  • 33 districts have tested for radon in the past.
  • None of the 11 districts in Portage County have ever tested for radon, which the EPA considers a Zone 2.
  • Some of the highest results came from Western Reserve Local School District in Huron County after a 2009 test.
    • The gym, science lab, a work room, and classroom tested positive for radon at levels that are three times higher than what the EPA considers safe.
    • A maintenance supervisor told 19 News he caulked cracks found in the floor in those rooms.
  • Mansfield Schools tested in 2009 and found multiple locations inside Sherman Elementary that tested above EPA action levels.
    • School administrators told 19 News no mitigation was done.
  • Tuslaw Local in Stark County -- an EPA “Zone 1” -- has never tested for the cancer-causing gas.
    • When asked why, administrators stated “education and security have been at the forefront on priorities.”

19 News created a comprehensive map to show which districts have tested and which have not. You’ll see some districts have tested, some have not, and others did not respond to multiple public records requests.

Each district’s response is recorded on this map. RED = no testing for radon. GREEN = tested within last 30 years. BLACK = no response.

In the map, you will also find districts’ responses to why they do or don’t test. Some didn’t provide an answer to that question.

Many districts stated they don’t test because it isn’t required by law. A handful of other districts said they have no reason to believe they have radon, even though they’ve never tested.

Cedric Mims with Radon Eliminator said there’s no way to know if a district has radon unless they test.

“I think the biggest myth is because you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, so it’s like, ‘How is that going to hurt me?’” Mims said.

The Ohio Department of Health recommends schools test for radon every two years, but it’s only a recommendation.

Nine states have radon testing requirements in schools, like Rhode Island which mandates schools test every four years. West Virginia requires schools to test every five years.

David Metzger with 1st Option Radon Measurement trains and certifies radon and mitigation specialists throughout the nation.

“I think it’s a good idea that we create this awareness kind of help awaken again, shine a light on the fact that we need to do this testing in schools,” Metzger said.

He’s done testing in a handful of schools in our area.

“The average school system is going to spend a few thousand dollars testing, but if they have a pervasive problem, it could very easily cost tens of thousands of dollars per building to fix,” he explained.

According to the EPA, 20% of schools nationwide have done some sort of radon testing.

19 News found only two districts in Northeast Ohio test on a regular basis.

North Canton Schools test every four to five years. In Avon Lake, the district tests buildings every five to eight years.

“It just fits into what we do in general for safety for our kids,” explained Avon Lake Superintendent, Bob Scott.

Avon Lake’s last test was in 2012, which was clear.

We also posted all radon testing results provided to 19 News. You can click here to view the results of those districts that provided documentation through public records.

Avon Lake has set up testing again this year.

“It’s been seven years. It’s time to do it again. It’s time to make sure. You never really live on that side where you say things like ‘I think we’re safe,'" Scott said.

Scott said the peace of mind of safety of students, staff, and parents is worth the price.

“Everything costs. Safety is something that you always spend money on and you’re going to spend those dollars,” Scott said.

What’s next?

In Ohio, lung cancer rates are 17% higher than the national average, according to the state’s health department.

As Bobbi continues fighting for her life, she’s also fighting to help save the lives of those who might not even know they’re at risk.

“Think about that. Do you want your kid walking into the school every morning being exposed to that much radon?” Bobbi asked.

“I’m going to beat the odds. I’m convinced I will,” she added.

After 19 News started reaching out to school districts asking if they test for radon, many stated they’ve never tested, but they’re now reaching out to local companies to get estimates.

Our investigation is also sparking talk at the statehouse.

Senator Kirk Schuring, who represents Stark County, sponsored Jarod’s Law. He told 19 News he would be interested in revisiting a state law that requires radon testing in schools paired with other safety items like sanitary checks from the state’s health department.

Click here to view the interactive map to see if your child’s district tests for radon. Click here to see the results if they do test.

Copyright 2019 WOIO. All rights reserved.

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