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Keny-Guyer Wins Resounding Approval for Radon Testing in Schools

The Oregon House votes 54-4 to support HB 2931, which sets up a process for checking Oregon’s schools for radon, the second-leading cause of lung cancer and the culprit of more deaths than drunken driving.
July 2, 2015

The House voted 54-4 on Wednesday on a bill to get all schools in Oregon to test for radon by 2021.

House Bill 2931 will start the process by ordering the Oregon Health Authority to share its public health advice with schools about the hazards regarding radon. Each school district will then have to develop a plan for testing for the deadly element, and do so by the beginning of 2021.

“Radon is an odorless and invisible gas that seeps up through rock,” said Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer. … We want all schools to go through a testing process if they haven’t done so in the last 10 years.”

Radon is a naturally occurring gaseous element that leaks up from the ground in sporadic pockets across the state, from Scappoose to La Grande and east Portland to Salem. Radon inhalation kills 21,000 Americans each year. It is the easiest way to get lung cancer for non-smokers.

The health authority will be tasked with working with the Oregon School Boards Association to craft model plans for testing radon, which must occur in any occupied room on the ground floor or above a basement or crawl space.

Keny-Guyer was joined in support on the floor by Rep. Paul Evans, D-Salem, whose district in West Salem has been plagued by radon, and Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, a physician: “We test for this in our homes. There’s no reason we shouldn’t test for it in our schools.”

HB 2931 calls for $56,000 to the Oregon Health Authority to continue use of a half-time radon program coordinator, who was hired with federal grant money. Another $27,000 goes to the Department of Education to help distribute information to schools. No money is budgeted for the tests, let alone mitigation of radon, but Keny-Guyer told The Lund Report she would like to help schools who can’t swing the cost of the tests in future budgets.

Radon tests are cheap -- only about $4 apiece, but Portland Public Schools, for example, would have to test 3,200 classrooms for the element to see if levels are below 4 picocuries per Liter -- the level deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Four picocuries equates to nine particle disintegrations per minute.

Keny-Guyer, along with her partner on the bill, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, tried to get a radon testing bill passed in 2014, but it died in the budget committee. That bill specifically sought for radon mitigation for any school that was undergoing seismic upgrades, something Keny-Guyer would still like to see in the form of a budget note on any public works bonding the Legislature does this session for schools. “The cheapest time for anything is when you’re already working on it,” she told The Lund Report.

A Prussian scientist first identified radon in 1900, and it commonly occurs in a decay chain after uranium and radium disintegrate. Geologically, it radiates from alluvial deposits where glaciers have scoured uranium from the bedrock. All isotopes of radon are radioactive; the most stable of which has a half-life of just 3.8 days, and its decay chain eventually disintegrates into lead before the atoms become stable. The problem of high concentrations of radon in homes was only discovered in 1985, and the health hazard is related to the radioactive gas particles clinging to dust.

Because of its position on the high end of the periodic table of elements, radon is about the densest chemical that remains a gas under normal conditions, causing it to float and collect near the bottom of buildings in basements and crawl spaces, beneath much lighter nitrogen and oxygen.

According to the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division, radon problems can be fixed by qualified contractors for a cost similar to that of many common home repairs, such as painting or having a new water heater installed. The best time to test for radon is during the heating season, when the windows and doors are closed up tight. This is when you would expect to find the highest radon levels in your home.