Nashville Schools Test for Radon After 20-Year Delay - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

Nashville Schools Test for Radon After 20-Year Delay

Updated:

By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Metro Nashville schools have launched a major effort to test every school building for the cancer-causing gas radon. 

It follows an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation that discovered a startling failure to follow a law passed more than 20 years ago to require testing.

The testing quietly began in 28 schools over Spring Break, but the initial results won't be back for at least a week. Eventually, all 139 schools will be tested.

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered that Metro schools have not tested for the gas in more than 20 years despite a disturbing history with radon.

Davidson County is a high-risk area for radon, which occurs naturally when certain soil and rock decay.  It is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country.

Thomas Hatfield has been Metro Schools' point person for radon ever since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested 11 schools in 1989.  He remembers being shocked by results that indicated that Nashville schools had some of the worst radon levels in the country.

"At the time it alarmed us," recalled Hatfield, who is now the director of plant operations and maintenance for the school system and deals with safety issues like radon. "What we found was alarming."

Back in 1989, EPA helped lower radon levels at two of the 11 schools tested, but left the rest up to Metro.

"Nashville continues to have a serious radon problem in its schools, the magnitude of which has not yet been fully determined," the EPA wrote in a follow-up letter.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hatfield, "These 11 schools, we know that they had high levels. What do we know about them today?"

Hatfield responded, "Don't know.  As far as radon levels, we don't know."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "Why shouldn't every parent be concerned when they hear that?

"I don't know why they wouldn't be," the school official admitted.

Metro does not know because it has not tested in more than 20 years.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained the old tests showing more than 80% of all classrooms tested by the EPA were above four picoCuries per liter -- that's the level the government considers acceptable.

Almost half of the schools had classrooms above 50 picoCuries.

Four classrooms were above 100 picoCuries - that's 25 times the recommended level.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hatfield, "The EPA thought it was serious in 1989, right?

"Yes," he acknowledged.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "And there was nothing really done as far as testing?"

"I don't know that a whole lot was done after 1989," Hatfield said.
 
For years, the EPA has recommended school districts test for radon, but Hatfield said that Metro did not test -- because testing was never required.

"Why haven't they stepped forward and made this a regulation, 'let's do this because we need to do this?'" Hatfield asked.

"But some might say you shouldn't be motivated simply by a regulation," NewsChannel 5 Investigates responded.
 
"Yea, I should not be motivated by that, but the fact is resources," Hatfield replied.

"You're talking about money," NewsChannel 5 Investigates clarified.

"I am," Hatfield said.

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered schools should have been tested.

The Metro Council passed an ordinance in 1988, requiring schools to lower radon levels in all classrooms to four picoCuries or below. The Health Department adopted a regulation in 1989 that required radon testing in all Metro buildings, including schools.

A Metro Schools memo indicated that full testing was expected to begin in July 1990.

Current Health Department officials say they did not know the regulation or the law existed until NewsChannel 5 brought it to their attention.

"Why weren't schools tested during that entire period?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Brent Hager, director of environmental health with the Metro Nashville Health Department.

"I am not certain," Hager responded.

Now, more than 20 years later, officials are scrambling to test all Metro schools.

"With 180 some odd buildings it will be a formidable task," Hager said.  "It will be expensive."

It involves hundreds, perhaps thousands, of radon test kits.  At this point, the department is not even sure how to pay for it. 

"Metro will pay for it," Hager said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates tried to clarify, "Metro schools or the Metro Health Department?"

"Metro," Hager answered. "I don't know who will be paying for it."

Metro's own notes from the time show what's at stake.  They estimated that a teacher in a classroom with 100 picoCuries per liter for ten years has a one in 40 chance of getting lung cancer, and the risks were higher for children.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Metro school official Thomas Hatfield, "How did you not test when you saw risks like that?"

"Well, we will be testing," Hatfield answered.

"Twenty years later -- is that acceptable?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"It is what it is, unfortunately," Hatfield responded.

Hatfield claimed that Metro fixed problems at the nine schools the EPA did not fix, but he has not presented documentation that shows the repairs. 

He admitted that the district's other schools have not been tested.

Metro will test up to 10 schools each weekend. Test kits hang in classrooms for two days and are then mailed to a lab outside Tennessee where they determine the level of radon.

Getting the results takes at least a week.

Email: bhall@newschannel5.com

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