Radon is Real! As the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking, radon is associated with approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is educating students about the risk of radon exposure and the importance of testing.
In December 2015, Stephanie Foster of the Geospatial Research, Analysis, and Services Program (GRASP) and Brian Tencza of the Environmental Medicine Branch, at ATSDR visited 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms to educate students about the risk of radon exposure. Radon is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless radioactive gas, and its presence can only be determined by testing the indoor air of our homes, schools, and workplaces.
During the visit, over 400 students learned about radon and each student received a radon test kit to use at home. Additionally, each class received a test kit to be used in rooms throughout the school.
An immediate outcome of this work was a sincere message of thanks from one homeowner who used the free test kit to discover that the indoor air in her home had approximately twice the EPA action level for radon (4 pCi/L). The homeowner shared that she would not have tested her relatively new home because she believed it was protected against radon.
The Importance of Radon Testing
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages indoor air testing for radon and provides funding to states in support of radon testing programs, the extent to which states conduct radon testing and monitoring programs differs across the nation. Raising awareness of the risks of radon exposure and the need for testing is critical in increasing the number of homeowners who know the level of indoor radon in their homes.
The homeowner who reached out to Stephanie is now armed with additional ATSDR resources including an inventory of certified radon mitigation companies and a checklist of next steps to reduce the indoor radon levels in her home. Furthermore, resources were sent home with students in the classrooms visited to encourage testing and radon reduction, if needed.
Supporting STEM Education with Radon Outreach
This partnership with the school district also promotes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. During the school visits, students are engaged in a variety of age-appropriate activities.
For example, in addition to discussing radon and radon’s health effects, the 5 th grade students participated in a hands-on experiment demonstrating the presence of radioactive particles in the air. Using a petri dish, dark construction paper, felt, and rubbing alcohol the students were able to see condensation trails produced from radioactive decay. This activity reinforced the idea that these harmful particles may exist in the air even though they cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Radon Research in GRASP
The elementary school outreach is part of the Radon in Schools project, led by Stephanie Foster in GRASP at ATSDR. Through this work Stephanie hopes to raises awareness about the risk of radon exposure and encourage students and families to take action to protect their health. As the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking, radon is associated with approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States.
The school outreach component of the Radon in Schools project is being completed in parallel with other geospatial research projects focused on understanding indoor radon potential. As a part of this complementary effort, GRASP scientists are using geographic information system (GIS) science and technology. Specifically, they examine the spatial relationship between residential radon test results and potential risk of radon in nearby schools. With hopes of expanding beyond Georgia, results from the spatial analysis can provide important information to assist school districts and public health partners to allocate limited resources to prioritize schools for routine radon testing and to promote construction of radon-resistant new schools.
Building Radon Collaborations
Looking to the future, Stephanie Foster states, “We are excited about the collaborative nature and impact of this work. In addition to working with ATSDR colleagues, we have initiated an internal radon working group. We are bringing together radon researchers from NCEH’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Network and the Radiation Studies Branch and the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control’s Comprehensive Cancer Control Program.
Additionally, we have initiated discussions with the radon program of EPA Region 4 to develop collaborative programs between CDC/ATSDR, EPA, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).” As the project progresses, hopefully homeowners will test their homes for radon encouraged by a new generation aware of the impact of radon exposure, empowered to protect their future.