SILENT KILLER: Radon In Iowa Schools And Homes

You send your children to school, assuming they will be reasonably safe.  So, why is a middle school principal on a mission to warn all parents about a potential health hazard to Iowa students?

It sounds outrageous, that something could be killing you or your loved one over a period of years.  It’s not something solid that you can remove or contain like mold or asbestos.  But experts agree, people can make a building safe, even though they’re not required to.

Steph Langstraat is like a breath of fresh air. Taking the awkwardness and anxiety that can fill a middle school and replacing them with confidence and fun.  Ms. Langstraat is tough, but fair.

One of this principal’s greatest passions, aside from students, is the learning environment at Prairie City-Monroe Middle School.

“A safe place”, says Langstraat, “A safe place to breathe, a safe place in general to spend most of their day outside of their parents’ care.”

So, Ms. Langstraat is excited to show off the school’s new set of plastic tubes.  District officials hired a company to install them, after tests detected tiny amounts of something potentially hazardous, potentially deadly, seeping up through the foundation into the classrooms and halls.

Langstraad explains, “Based on our testing, we’re safe here, but this is something that the district has decided hey, look, this is a big deal, we want to make sure our kids are safe.”

Safe from the effects of radon.  Lately, this colorless, odorless gas has become an unofficial part of the science curriculum at PC-M

“What is it and why would that cause lung cancer?” asked Langstraad.  “Um, can  it go away?  Can we get rid of it?  I just immediately wanted to know.”

Melanie Rasmusson heads-up the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Radiological Health.  She says there’s no getting around Iowa’s radon problem.

“Yes.  It’s not going to go anywhere for a very long time,” confirms Rasmusson.

It started eons ago, when glaciers moved across North America.  They deposited nutrients that enriched the soil that grows our food.  The glaciers also brought a threat to our homes.

Iowa has the highest uranium concentration in the nation.  As uranium breaks down it releases radon gas that has potential to cause lung cancer.  The gas rises up through an estimated three-quarters of the homes and building foundations in Iowa.

Rasmusson says, “You have to have a long-time exposure, a chronic exposure to the Radon for it to cause cancer, possibly.”

For example, seven hours a day for most of a child’s life or a teacher’s career?

Testing is the only way to detect radon.  It can cost a few hundred dollars.  Neighbors heating and cooling is installing a dozen units to pump the gas from below the middle school’s foundation.  The system costs about $20,000, but it promises to send the gas up the pipes and safely out through the roof.  Like a sump pump for air, instead of water.

New construction is especially at risk says Rasmusson, “The problem with new construction is the homes and buildings are built tighter to keep the heat and the air inside and when you do that, you also keep the Radon inside.”

Ms. Langstraat is truly grateful for the improvements.  But there’s something you don’t know yet about Ms. Langstraat.

“You know, of all people, I’m the one that’s stuck here with lung cancer and as my mom has said, ‘Well, why not you?’” she says.

For starters, she has never smoked, hardly been around smoke.  She grew up healthy, even played college softball.

“Other than my mom with breast cancer, nobody in my family really has cancer, period, lung cancer, especially,” says Langstraat.

That’s precisely why doctors assume Steph  is one of the 21,000 U.S. cancer patients each year whose carcinoma can be traced back to radon.

“It is a fact,” says Dr. Voynov, a Radiation Oncologist at Mercy Medical Center.  “It is a fact.  We don’t know to what extent.”

Dr. Voynov acknowledges that no test can prove radon caused the cancer in Ms. Langstraat’s lungs. But, so few things do cause lung cancer that when Dr. Voynov’s patient fits a description like Ms. Langstraat the first thing that comes to mind is radon.

“He just said it’s cancer,” remembers Langstraat.  “I couldn’t believe it because I’ve never smoked a day in my life.”

That sounds familiar to Gail Orcutt.  She has dedicated her life to radon awareness, ever since her doctor gave the diagnosis in 2010.  A simple test showed dangerously high levels of radon in Gail’s home.

Orcutt says, “We called a mitigator right away.  He fixed the house in a day.  But most people don’t find it until it’s way too late.”

That’s why Gail volunteers on behalf of the Iowa Radon Coalition and the American Cancer Society.  They teamed with Congressman Bruce Braley to sponsor the “End Radon in Schools Act”  It would give grants to states to work with districts to test the radon levels in their school buildings. If the school building has an unhealthy radon level, the school would be given funding to mitigate or diminish the high radon levels — like Ms. Langstraat has at PC-M.

Right now, testing is a choice.  Not only do lawmakers not fund testing in schools, they don’t require districts to pay for it either.  In fact, the only buildings in Iowa required to be tested for radon are state registered day care centers.

“It’s something that I’m choosing to lean towards because it’s something that I can help make some type of awareness and some type of sense as to why I was a chosen one,” says Langstraat.  She wonders, who will be the next one?  It leaves a big question mark on many of the schools in Iowa except for this one.

Langstraat says, “You know, I have something very terrible, but I’m going to do something very positive with it.”

PC-M isn’t the only school district to have tested, found and mitigated radon.  Other schools have but many have not. The Department of Education has no say over radon.  The Department of Public Health can only suggest that schools test.  The state registered daycares are handled by the Department of Human Services.

Iowa Congressman Braley’s bill aims to cut through some of that bureaucracy.   The answer to why no testing is that districts, lawmakers and parents haven’t made it a priority.

There’s a big question mark on most office complexes and all state facilities, including the State Capitol.  None have been tested.  Mercy Hospital is now testing that basement cancer area where we conducted the doctor’s interview as a result of this story.

And how about Ms. Langstraat? She’s got a tough fight ahead with chemotherapy. The kids and the community have printed t-shirts and raised money to help her. We’ll keep you updated on Ms.  Langstraat.

Click here to order a home Radon test kit.

Click here for the EPA’s Guide to Radon.

Click here for The American Cancer Society.