DES MOINES, Iowa -- Twenty-one thousand Americans, 400 of those being Iowans, die from lung cancer caused by radon every year according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The radioactive gas that is odorless, colorless, and tasteless seeps through soil and into buildings, our schools included.
Right now only preschools and daycares in Iowa that receive funding from the Department of Human Services are actually required to test for radon by law. With Iowa being a hot spot for the gas, as the entire state considered a high potential zone, many schools are going above what's required by law to make sure their students are safe while learning.
“There are a number of things that aren't required by law that a number of school districts do because it's good for the student. When we think about a lot of mental health efforts, radon testing, continued professional learning for teachers, those are things that aren't necessarily mandated by the state law but they are really good for our staff, students, and overall community in the district,” Laura Sprague, Director of Communications for Johnston School District said.
For the first time Johnston hired a third-party company to test for radon in their eight school buildings and all other district buildings just a few days ago.
However, sometimes schools, especially in rural Iowa, have trouble being able to afford such tests. That's why a local nonprofit called Energy Association of Iowa Schools (EAIS) is equipping districts with the knowledge and tools to test for radon themselves.
The organization said by schools conducting the tests on their own, districts can save thousands each time.
“There is a lot of aha's like ‘oh my gosh’ I had no idea that this was such an issue, or ‘oh my gosh I didn't know it was this easy to fix.’ All schools want to do what's best for kids, they all do. They are just busy and have lots of things pulling at their purse strings,” Julie Weisshaar, Executive Director for EAIS said.
Weisshaar said since last year they've helped test over 130 schools. Approximately 42 percent of them find elevated levels of radon in at least one classroom, and out of those who find elevated levels 15 percent actually have to mitigate the issue.
“Iowa schools are great and they do an awesome job educating our students and they do their best at keeping their facilities safe,” Weisshaar said. “This is one way to do that. Testing for radon is a way to handle safety. They have emergency plans for outside issues and outside intruders, but we have an inside danger that is really easy to test for, it's affordable to test for, and it's worth testing for.”
Radon has been a topic during multiple legislative sessions in recent years. Weisshaar said there's a house file that legislature will be taking a look at this next session that discusses requiring all public schools to test and mitigate for radon.