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BYU Researchers test Levels of Radon Concentrations in Schools

Two BYU professors, Dr. John Beard and Dr. James Johnston, led a research team of 94 students on a mission to test radon levels in 66 schools in Utah. Through their research, they discovered a simple way to lower radon levels.

Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. That’s why it’s important to ensure that there are low radon levels in schools. In early 2019, two BYU professors, Dr. John Beard and Dr. James Johnston, led a research team of 94 BYU students on a mission to test radon levels in 2,300 classrooms in 66 schools in Utah. They discovered a clear pattern between the schools with high radon levels and the schools with low levels, and a simple way to lower the radon level at any school.

To read the full report of their research, follow this link to the peer reviewed article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Associations Between School Characteristics and Classroom Radon Concentrations in Utah’s Public Schools: A Project Completed by University Environmental Health Students.

The project began when Dr. Judy Ou, a Research Associate at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and Eleanor Divver, the Radon Program Coordinator at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, came to BYU with hopes to collaborate on research, radon testing in schools, and lowering schools’ radon levels.

As part of the research, the administrators or maintenance staff at the schools completed a survey about characteristics of the schools that could be related to radon, such as the age of the school and its type of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

Then, the testing process followed a pattern. Dr. Beard explained, “A student research assistant would contact the schools and schedule the time for the test. The students would go in teams of two, either before or after school hours, and place the tests, which were little boxes of activated charcoal, typically on a bookshelf. Two or three days later, they’d go back at the same time to the same school, pick up the tests and bring them to me. I’d mail them to the lab in Texas, and the lab would send the results back.”

Dr. Beard and Dr. Johnson recruited students from the environmental health classes they teach, as well as a HLTH 606 class, graduate students, and even an elementary education student. In addition to spending time in class talking about radon, participating in the project was a meaningful experience for the students because they “felt like they were having an impact.”

After all of the testing was done and the results were returned and analyzed, the patterns began to appear. The smaller and bigger schools had higher radon levels and the medium sized schools had lower levels. Dr. Beard explained that the “number of classrooms, number of students, and the year the HVAC system was installed were related to radon concentrations.” Of the 2,300 classrooms, only 37, or 1.5%, in 13 of 66 schools, or 20%, had a level of radon that was higher than the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This level is significantly lower than the existing level in Utah homes, where a third of Utah homes have a radon level above the limit.

To investigate further, the BYU researchers ran a follow-up test using continuous radon monitors in two schools that had several classrooms that tested above the EPA’s limit. The tests used for the initial round of testing gave an average measurement over a 48 hour period, while the continuous radon monitors gave an hourly report. “We saw a real, definite pattern.” Dr. Beard said. The radon levels were low when the HVAC system was on and high when it was off. But for one of the schools, it took most of the school day for the radon levels to lower even while the HVAC system was on. This could be solved by changing the run time for the HVAC system.

The researchers came away with answers and direction after the testing was done. Dr. Beard said, “The big take-home was that the HVAC plays a really important role. If you have problems with radon, you should really look at your HVAC system; replacing it, getting a new one, or running it for longer in the day.”

Because of this research, a simple change in an HVAC system could protect students, teachers, administrators, maintenance staff, or anyone in the community, against lung cancer.