1. Headline
  1. Headline

Video: Rossen: Radon in schools is a hidden danger

  1. Closed captioning of: Rossen: Radon in schools is a hidden danger

    >>> morning on rossen reports, what experts call a serious health threat in our nation's schools that's invisible to the naked eye . jeff rossen is here with what he's uncovered. good morning.

    >> good morning. important story for parents. when we send our children to school we assume they are safe, that they are learning in a healthy environment. health officials say there is a danger in the area. a toxic cancer-causing gas in thousands of classrooms nationwide and many districts are doing nothing about it. it's just another school day in pennsylvania. and these second graders are ready to learn.

    >> let's talk about that.

    >> reporter: but what these kids can't see, smell or taste -- high levels of radioactive radon gas inside their classrooms. tests show nearly double the epa 's accepted limit.

    >> of all the environmental exposures you get, this one cause it is most deaths.

    >> reporter: radon develops from the breakdown of soil and rock seeping into buildings and the air we breathe. chronic exposure, experts say, could be deadly and perhaps most disturbing, victims usually don't realize they have been exposed until years later when it's too late. next to smoking, it is the leading cause of lung cancer . according to the epa , linked to more than 20,000 deaths every year. bill field is one of the foremost experts on radon . if you compare it to smoking what are the students being exposed to?

    >> if they are exposed it can be the equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

    >> for a child.

    >> for a child.

    >> reporter: gail is retired teacher. she started coughing and went to the doctor.

    >> he said, you have a nodule and it's probably malignant.

    >> reporter: had you smoked?

    >> never a day in my life.

    >> reporter: she tested her house for radon and the levels were high. doctors told her that's the likely cause.

    >> the doctor removed by left lung . i went through 12 weeks of chemo.

    >> reporter: her home, the schools where she taught and the entire state of iowa are in what the epa call a level one radon hot zone . you taught for years here. did they ever test it for radon ?

    >> no. i always said i wonder if i wasn't exposed here as well as at home.

    >> reporter: most say districts can't afford the tests though the epa estimates more than 70,000 classrooms nationwide are at risk. believe it or not only five states require testing. there is no federal law mandating it.

    >> the kids are there six, seven hours a day. i think it should be retired.

    >> it's like an ostrich with the head in the sand. they just don't want to know.

    >> reporter: even with children's safety at stake?

    >> sometimes money has a more powerful influence than health.

    >> reporter: we had an idea. working with a certified lab nbc news contacted schools in radon hot zones and offered to pay for radon testing . all 40 declined the offer or didn't respond at all. some said the science isn't there. others didn't give a reason. here in indianapolis, school administrators originally said yes, test three of our schools. even gave us the floor plans so the labs could figure out where to put the detectors, but the district pulled out with one official saying this can only make us look bad. if the levels are high, parents will get upset and want every school tested.

    >> why decline it if it's free? if it's a free service, i'd take it.

    >> reporter: this is jeff rossen from nbc news. so we followed up with school officials. we'd love to interview the superintendent on camera about why the school doesn't test and also why you declined our offer to test for free. all districts declined to be interviewed, too. the thing is when schools do test, experts say it can save lives. in connecticut one of the states where it's mandatory, this district got a wake-up call.

    >> this kindergarten classroom where we have 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds was at least four times above the acceptable limit by the epa .

    >> reporter: 400 classrooms throughout connecticut tested high. they have all been fixed with new pipes for ventilation. and remember the 2nd graders in pennsylvania sitting in classrooms with elevated levels of the toxic gas? administrators here were proactive.

    >> i think it's imperative that we find out what the situation is and if there is a problem, take care of it.

    >> reporter: they tested nine schools voluntarily. in one of them, 15 classrooms came in high. school officials are planning to fix it. so why not make all schools test? once upon a time the government seemed focused on it. lots of press about radon .

    >> the environmental protection agency warned that radon gas poses a potential health risk in thousands of american classrooms.

    >> reporter: congress held a hearing in 1993 .

    >> the obvious conclusion is that some children in classrooms have more radiation exposure than workers in a nuclear power plant .

    >> reporter: congress knows there is a problem.

    >> congress was told 20 years ago there was a problem.

    >> reporter: what have they done?

    >> nothing.

    >> reporter: we contacted lead members of environmental committees canning on camera interviews. they all declined. one blamed the epa . another said it is a state issue. which means kids continue breathing radon 's fumes and parents can't do a thing about it.

    >> these are our kids. parents are sending them to school assuming they will be in a safe environment. we need to guarantee that.

    >> some scientists say more research is needed to figure out the risk to children. many are concerned because just this month the epa is slashing the radon program and cutting funding entirely, money that helps schools test. we wanted to ask the epa why they are cutting the funding but they declined our request for an on-camera interview. in a statement they said the federal government is facing difficult budget challenges but said they will continue the fight against radon exposure. by the way, ann, schools pose a risk according to experts but the epa says homes pose the biggest risk. it's affordable and easy to fix and test for it. we picked up these kits at a hardware store. they cost less than $25. open it up, put it down and figure out if your home is at risk, too.

    >> jeff, thank you so much for the information. just ahead,

By
TODAY
updated 2/29/2012 7:38:43 AM ET 2012-02-29T12:38:43

What experts call a serious threat in our nation’s schools is invisible to the naked eye. TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.

  1. More from TODAY.com
    1. 2 dead, including gunman, in Washington school schooting

      A student with a “blank stare” opened fire in a Washington high school’s cafeteria on Friday, killing one person and wound...

    2. Remains found on abandoned property are Hannah Graham's
    3. This girl fulfilled a beautiful promise to her sister: Watch it
    4. This dad battling cancer is using the time he has left to inspire
    5. Beards are coming back: Join anchors for No-Shave TODAY in November

When we send our children to school, we assume that they’re safe; that they’re learning in a healthy environment. But health officials say there’s a danger in the air: a toxic cancer causing gas in thousands of classrooms nationwide. And, we found, many districts are doing nothing about it.

Have an idea for Rossen Reports? Email us by clicking here!

We visited a school in Pennsylvania and found second-graders are ready to learn. But what the kids can’t see, smell or taste are high levels of radioactive radon gas inside their classrooms. Tests show nearly double the EPA’s accepted limit.

Radon develops from the breakdown of soil and rock, seeping into buildings and the air we breathe. Chronic exposure, experts say, could be deadly. And perhaps most disturbing, victims usually don’t realize they have been exposed until years later, when it’s too late.

Next to smoking, it is the leading cause of lung cancer — according to the EPA, linked to more than 20,000 deaths every year. “Of all the environmental exposures you get, this is the one that causes the most deaths,” said Bill Field, one of the foremost experts on radon.

“If you had to compare radon exposure to smoking, what are these children being exposed to?” we asked him.

Video: Rossen: Radon in schools is a hidden danger (on this page)

“Well, if a student’s exposed, even at the EPA's action level, 4 picocuries per liter, that's equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes per day,” Field said.

Gail Orcutt is a retired teacher in Iowa. When she started coughing, she went to the doctor. “He said, ‘You have a nodule on your left lung, and it's probably malignant,’” she told us. “Lung cancer.”

“Had you smoked a day in your life?” we asked.

“Never a day in my life, no.”

On a hunch, Gail tested her house for radon and, sure enough, the levels were high. Doctors told her that’s the likely cause.

“The doctor removed my entire left lung,” she said. “And then I went through 12 weeks of chemo.”

Turns out Gail’s home, the schools where she taught, and in fact the entire state of Iowa are in what the EPA calls a level 1 radon hot zone. I asked her whether the elementary school where she taught for years was ever tested for radon. “No, and I always kind of wondered if I was exposed here as well as my home,” she said.

Most schools don’t test. Experts say districts can’t afford it, even though the EPA estimates that more than 70,000 classrooms nationwide are at risk. Believe it or not, only five states require testing. And there’s no federal law mandating it.

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

“Sometimes money has a much more powerful influence than people’s health,” Bill Field said.

So we had an idea: Working with a certified lab, NBC News contacted 40 school districts nationwide, all in radon hot zones. We offered to pay for their radon testing. But all 40 declined our offer — or didn’t respond at all. Some said “the science isn’t there”; others didn’t give a reason.

In Indianapolis, school administrators originally said, “Yes, test three of our schools.” They even gave us their floor plans so our lab could figure out where to place the radon detectors. But the district suddenly pulled out, with one official telling us: “This can only make us look bad. If the levels are high, parents will get upset and want every school tested.”

Story: Welcome to Rossen Reports: We want your ideas!

“Why would they decline it if it’s free?” parent Randy Gross asked. I mean, if it is a free service, I would take it.” So we followed up with school officials. All the districts declined to be interviewed, too.

The thing is, when schools do test, it can save lives. In Connecticut, one of the states where it’s mandatory, one district got a wake-up call. Principal Jason MacKinnon took us into Branchville Elementary School: “This kindergarten classroom where we have 5- and 6-year-olds, the results were alarming,” he said.

Video: Rossen Reports: Is the ice rink making your child sick?

Four hundred classrooms throughout Connecticut tested high. They’ve all been fixed with new pipes for ventilation. And remember those second-graders in Pennsylvania sitting in classrooms with elevated levels of the toxic gas? Administrators were proactive.

“I think it is imperative that we find out what the situation is and if there is a problem, take care of it,” said David Baugh, superintendent, Bensalem Township School District. They tested nine schools voluntarily. In one of them, 15 classrooms came in high. School officials are planning to fix it.

So why not make all schools test? Once upon a time the government seemed focused on it. There was lots of press about radon, and Congress even held a hearing in 1993. “Congress was told 20 years ago there was a problem,” expert Bill Field said.

“And what have they done?” we asked.

“Nothing.”

  1. More Rossen Reports
    1. Rossen Reports: Kids can sleep through smoke alarms, experts say
      TODAY
    2. Rossen Reports: Are child safety caps enough to keep kids out?
    3. Hotel chains devalue loyalty rewards points
    4. Rossen Reports: Potentially dangerous cars for sale
    5. How to check whether your vehicle has an unfixed safety recall

We contacted the lead members of the environmental committees, requesting on-camera interviews. They all declined. One blamed the EPA. Another said it is a state issue. Which means kids continue breating radon’s toxis fumes, and parents can’t do a thing about it.

“These are our kids, and parents are sending them to school assuming they're going to be in a safe environment,” Gail Orcutt said. “And so we just need to guarantee that.”

Some scientists say more research is needed to figure out the exact risk to children. But many are concerned because just this month, the EPA is slashing its radon program and cutting funding entirely — money that helps schools test. We wanted to ask the EPA why, but they declined our request for an on-camera interview. In a statement, the EPA told us the federal government is facing difficult budget challenges, but said they’ll continue the fight against radon exposure.

As for home radon testing, the EPA says “the most significant possible risks are at home” and, if high levels are found, “solutions are practical, effective and affordable.” The good news is, the EPA says you can test yourself. You can buy radon detectors at most major home-improvement stores, usually for $25 or less. And even if you don’t live in a hot zone, your family is still at risk: Elevated levels of radon could be anywhere.

To read statements in reponse to this report from the EPA and members of Congress, click here .

To see a list of the schools that Rossen Reports contacted and offered radon testing, click here .

For more information on radon from the EPA, click here. And to find out which radon zone you live in and to contact your state radon office, click here.

Get more information about testing your home from the EPA by clicking here and from Kansas State University’s National Radon Program Services by clicking here.

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments