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Metro Teachers Demand Action Following Radon Investigation

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By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Metro Nashville teachers are demanding action from the school board following a NewsChannel 5 investigation. They're concerned about dangerous levels of the cancer-causing gas radon in classrooms.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. 

The last time Metro schools were tested for radon was in 1989, as part of an EPA study. Those tests showed extremely high levels of the radioactive gas.

"I would not want my child in there, or my wife, or myself," said environmental engineer Doug Taylor, as he looked through school maps detailing radon test results. 

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained the maps that show radon levels in every classroom of the 11 schools tested by the EPA in 1989. 

"I mean they're extremely high" remarked Taylor.

Crieve Hall Elementary was one the schools tested, and it's still operating today.

Every classroom at Crieve Hall exceeded the EPA safety standard for the cancer-causing gas. Two classrooms were 15 times higher than acceptable levels, and one classroom was more than 20 times higher with a reading of 81.9 picoCuries per liter.

How unusual is a reading like 81.9?

Doug Taylor responded, "Seldom do a I see numbers above 25."

The EPA standard is 4.

But tests showed many classrooms well above 25 picoCuries.

Take Two Rivers High School, now Middle School. Tests showed three classrooms above 100 picoCuries, and many classrooms well above 60.

"You've got 116 and 136 over here," Taylor said as he reviewed the map of Two Rivers.

The EPA lowered radon levels at Two Rivers, and Metro claims it lowered levels other schools, although school officials provided no proof of any work done after 1989.

View school maps showing EPA radon test results for each classroom in 1989.

Still, despite warnings from the EPA about a "serious radon problem," Metro hasn't tested any school in more than 20 years.

"It does make me angry," Taylor said.  "You've got documents that you showed me, that they knew many, many years ago that radon was a problem in the schools."

Metro teachers are concerned as well.

The head of the Metro Nashville Education Association told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "This information on radon is a very important issue to teachers and students, and we will take it seriously."

"The school board hasn't taken the radon issue very seriously," said Eric Huth, president of the MNEA, which represents teachers and pushes for safe working conditions.

We showed him the school district's own notes from the time. They discussed radon levels that were found in 1989, and concluded teachers exposed for 10 years had a 1 in 40 chance of getting lung cancer.

"I'm hoping that this new revelation will light a fire to make the school district more responsive to the health and safety needs of both teachers and students," Huth said.

As NewsChannel 5 Investigates first reported, Metro said officials they didn't test because they didn't think it was required.

But our investigation revealed a law passed by the Metro council in 1988, that requires radon levels to be below the EPA standard in Metro buildings – including schools. 

We also discovered that the Health Department passed a regulation in 1989, requiring testing in schools every five years. 

But both the Health Department and Metro Schools claim they didn't know about those regulations until we brought them to their attention.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the man in charge of safety and maintenance at Metro Schools, "Do you know how serious the radon problem is 20 years later?"

Thomas Hatfield answered, "I do not.  I don't know if it's serious or not serious.  I do think it deserves following up and some more testing."

The MNEA wants to see the test results, and they want assurances from the school board that it will bring down high radon levels, which could get expensive.

The Metro Health Department tested seven more Metro schools over the weekend. 

On Friday, Health Department employees put test kits in the following schools: Bordeaux Elementary, Whitsitt Elementary, Dan Mills Elementary, Rosebank Elementary, Hattie Cotton Elementary, Cora - Howe Elementary and Shwab Elementary.

There will be more tests this weekend.  No test results are back yet.


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