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Treatment to reduce radon levels at school fails

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Adam Jensen, ajensen@tahoedailytribune.com
September 18, 2007

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Initial treatments to reduce levels of potentially dangerous radon gas at Zephyr Cove Elementary School have been ineffective, new test results show.

The realization has sent Douglas County School District officials scrambling for solutions and left those with ties to the school with health concerns.

Radon is listed as the second leading cause of lung cancer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We need to get on it; our kids are in that school every day," Denese Dunt, a parent of a Zephyr Cove Elementary School student, said Monday. Teachers who have worked at the school for long periods of time may also be at added risk, she said.

Long-term testing at the school, conducted over a period of six months and completed in July, found levels of the radioactive gas in many rooms at the school to be above the EPA's recommended action level of 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). A picocurie is a measure of radiation.

About a month ago, sealant was applied to foundations of three rooms at the school in an attempt to correct the problem.

Further testing on the rooms, conducted the weekend of Sept. 8, have found the sealant to be unsuccessful.

The September tests showed radon levels in one currently unused classroom to be up to 8.1pCi/L and a physical education office at the school tested to be as high as 11.2 pCi/L, according to Holly Luna, director of business services for Douglas County School District. Those radon levels are actually higher than those found before the sealant was applied, although the testing methods used were slightly different.

Testing in the third area, a storage room, found levels under the EPA's recommended action levels, but a test in an area next to the storage room, typically used as a standard for comparison, found radon levels of 4.9 pCi/L.

If rooms are not properly ventilated, radon, a naturally occurring gas arising from soils common to the Sierra Nevada, can seep into buildings and accumulate to levels potentially dangerous in the long term.

Measures to reduce indoor levels of the gas for buildings with a crawl space typically include specialized ventilation systems, but slab foundations throughout much of the school make remediation more difficult.

Officials from the school district and Nevada Department of Health and Human Services are scheduled to meet today to discuss the school's options to reduce radon levels at the school.

"We want to assure the community we will be moving in an expeditious manner as quickly as possible," Carol Lark, Douglas County School District superintendent, said Monday. "There will be a plan forthcoming."

After parents were notified Friday of the results from the most recent test, one student was pulled from the elementary school, Lark said, but others are hoping the school district will find a speedy remedy to the problem.

"I am absolutely concerned," Greg Felton, parent of a Zephyr Cove elementary school student, said Monday. "I have always thought that Kingsbury Middle School was a reasonable alternative to Zephyr Cove (Elementary School)."

Tests conducted at the middle school during the same weekend as the elementary school showed levels well below the EPA standard.

Out of 17 areas tested at the middle school, none came back with results higher than 1.2 pCi/L, according to Luna.

While emphasizing the school district's focus on safety, Lark said the possibility of moving students from Zephyr Cove Elementary to Kingsbury is unlikely due to improvements needed at the middle school, including a new roof.


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