TAMPA, Fla.— Florida law requires radon testing in all Florida classrooms, but the I-Team has discovered hundreds of Tampa Bay area schools haven't been tested in decades. In fact, the state doesn't require districts to do anything to fix the problem when elevated radon levels are found.
The I-Team has determined the law doesn’t follow scientific recommendations, leaving thousands of children exposed to high levels of the gas.
“It's a naturally occurring radioactive element which is produced by the decay of uranium, found in the soil,” said Dr. Matthew Shabbath, a lung cancer epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center.
Radon is believed to be responsible for killing about 21,000 Americans who die of lung cancer each year.
It’s also linked to lymphomas and leukemias.
The state law requiring testing has been in effect since the early 1990’s, when the federal government first determined how dangerous the gas can be.
The ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered that the law only requires initial testing of classrooms and then a retest within five years.
After that, there are no further testing requirements for individual rooms.
And there’s no requirement that school districts mitigate radon levels when they are discovered.
We discovered some classrooms, which had high levels in the 1990’s, haven’t been tested since that time.
Parents often fear an active shooter, school violence or even a bus crash when they send their kids to school. But what you can't see, smell or taste may pose an even greater danger— radon.
“I know it's some kind of gas, it comes from the ground,” said Jose Muniz, whose children attended Colson Elementary in Seffner.
Most Floridians don't know much about it, even though the Florida Department of Health says one in five homes have elevated radon levels.
“I know that it's harmful, I don't know exactly what it does,” said Hillsborough County Schools teacher Bradley Moore.
He said he had no idea radon levels were monitored in schools.
Scientists say this silent killer may be seeping up through the slabs of your child's school.
“This is something you don't want to mess around with,” said Dr. Shabbath. “We can inhale it and actually damages our cells at the DNA level.”
Shabbath compares spending six to eight hours in a classroom with elevated radon levels to spending the same amount of time in a room where people are smoking.
Central Florida has hot spots, where radon often exceeds the EPA action level of 4.0 picocuries per liter or higher.
At that level, scientists recommend limiting exposure and ventilating buildings.
The state has required a baseline test and a follow-up test within five years for every Florida school since the early 1990s.
“This is staggering. I didn't know this existed. This is actually frightening,” said Dr. Shabbath, when we showed him the data.
“I think parents should be talking to their school board, their representatives, the folks at the state and federal levels when you see something like this,” he said.
“I didn't have an idea that this was an issue,” said Corries Culpepper, who was recently named Hillsborough County Schools’ Safety Director.
About 200 Hillsborough County classrooms tested higher than 4.0 (pCi/L), but most numbers are decades old— even though the EPA recommends retesting every five years.
“It's a continuous process. It's something that should be done on a regular basis,” said Shabbath.
State data shows the last time radon testing was done at Yate's Elementary was in 1997 and back then, more than 20 classrooms exceeded the EPA action limit. One classroom came in at more than four times that level.
“I wouldn't want a relative or an enemy in something like that,” Shabbath said.
80 Colson Elementary school classrooms exceed the EPA action limit.
One classroom test came it at over 29, more than seven times the action limit.
Jose Muniz is a grandfather now, but his children attended Colson when the last tests were done.
“It's just a matter now of having that concern in the back of your mind and hoping down the road there's no adverse effect,” he said.
Culpepper says he has no idea if there is still a radon problem at Colson.
“When I go through the physical boxes, it does not have anything indicating that there was a retest or anything was done to fix those problems,” he said.
He said the district has complied with new building codes since 1996, which require vapor barriers and other measures when radon is detected in the soil.
Culpepper believes there are not any radon concerns associated with those newer buildings, additions or renovations which required radon testing.
More than 400 Polk County classrooms also exceeded 4 (pCi/L).
One room at Bartow Middle School measured 37.9.
A Polk County Schools spokesperson provided documents showing radon levels decreased in several schools, but the new numbers don't show up on the state website.
Several classrooms in the Bartow and Mulberry Communities tested above action levels in tests conducted during the 2015-2016 school year.
The district says it tries to mitigate those levels, even though it’s not required under Florida law.
*Map shows classrooms exceeding EPA action levels, the highest readings, and dates of the test.*
“Something at the department of health isn't working to monitor this, because we know this is a problem. These levels are very problematic,” said Shabbath.
Culpepper has begun the process of hiring a contractor to retest Hillsborough County Schools to get a good indication of current radon levels.
“It's something that's here. It was brought before me and I need to fix it,” he said.
When asked how the district planned to pay for testing and mitigation, he said they would find a way.
“Of course, there's a dollar amount to anything, but you can't put a dollar amount on safety. And we will do what we have to do,” Culpepper said.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at email@example.com