TODAY | February 29, 2012
>>> 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?
>> 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,