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Bethpage district to test again for radon gas in schools

Bethpage High School, where radon gas was detected

Bethpage High School, where radon gas was detected in two basement locations during tests conducted in 2017. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Bethpage school district has scheduled environmental testing this summer at the middle school where radon gas had been detected earlier in a basement storage closet.

Federal and state officials, as well as the state Department of Environmental Conservation, say there is no health concern based on what they described as limited exposure in an unoccupied area.

The radon, detailed in environmental reports commissioned by the district, was discovered in 2017 when Bethpage school officials ordered air quality and other environmental testing on school property after elevated levels of radium were found in groundwater samples from shallow monitoring wells on the Bethpage High School campus.

Radon, which can damage lung tissue, is a radioactive byproduct of the decay of radium and uranium that can occur naturally in soil and rock formations or be present as a result of human activity. The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that schools take action such as monitoring and retesting a site when radon levels are measured at 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air or higher, according to the EPA guidelines titled “Radon Measurement in Schools.”

In a report dated June 2017, the district’s environmental consultant found a level of radon at John F. Kennedy Middle School of 4 pCi/L detected in Room 0008, described as a locked storage closet in the basement. Tests were conducted in nine rooms and spaces at the school in April 2017.

In addition, the district’s consultants found that a reading of 3.9 was detected in room 0013 at the high school, described as a team locker room located in the basement, and at 3.8 in a basement storage room in the administrative department, both just below the EPA threshold.

The storage rooms are unoccupied by people and the locker rooms are only occupied by individuals for short time periods, according to the state DEC. At the high school, a total of 18 rooms were tested.

In a statement, an EPA representative said that “it appears that samples were taken in unoccupied rooms, where no one is being exposed. It would only be an issue if someone began occupying the space. . . . Mitigation is not necessary based on an elevated level in an unoccupied area.”

Bethpage Superintendent Terrence Clark said that, in addition to testing at the middle school this summer, the district will continue to schedule environmental testing in all five buildings on a rotating basis as needed.

District officials also said that a resampling in April of a crawl space at the Central Boulevard School, where radium had been detected in groundwater, showed “levels of radon are trending downward and appear to be well below EPA thresholds.” The district had installed a vapor barrier at that elementary school, officials said.

The district has spent more than $250,000 on testing and remediation districtwide in recent years, Clark said.

Bethpage High School, which opened in 1960, is across the street from Bethpage Community Park, the site of one component of a cleanup plan to remove a plume of volatile organic chemicals from groundwater and other contaminants from the soil.

It is one of several cleanup plans related to hazardous waste plumes left behind in Bethpage, where the U.S. Navy and what now is Northrop Grumman researched, tested and manufactured military aircraft and space exploration equipment from the mid-1930s until the mid-’90s.

The elevated levels of radium were detected in monitoring wells on school properties last year, but state officials said at the time the water was not used for drinking and did not pose a health risk to students, staff or faculty.

State officials said they will continue, in close cooperation with the school district administration, to monitor the radon and other environmental conditions at the schools.

“It is not a bright line that if you find a 4 pCi/L detection that there is an immediate health impact — it’s a conservative guidance value that indicates you should continue to monitor and look at ways to mitigate potential exposures,” said Martin Brand, the DEC’s deputy commissioner for remediation and materials management.

The radon detections had been referenced in a May 22 letter filed in court by Nicholas C. Rigano, a Melville-based attorney representing Long Island Pure Water Ltd., a group of residents who allege the Navy and the state DEC have failed to adequately investigate the presence of radioactive materials in Bethpage.

What is radon?

  • Radon is an odorless, tasteless and colorless gas.
  • It comes from the radioactive decay of uranium and radium in soil, rock and water. Radon can be found all over the Un ited States.
  • Outside air typically contains very low levels of radon, but it builds up to higher concentrations indoors when it is unable to disperse. Radon is often found on lower floors of structures.
  • The only way to know if there is a radon problem is to test. The New York State Department of Health has a low-cost radon test kit program available for state residents and should be contacted for further assistance.
  • The risk can be relatively easily mitigated with a proper ventilation system.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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