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Jennifer Johnson, Published December 25 2013

Radon problem at UND campus apartments

GRAND FORKS – Days before Christmas, University of North Dakota student Barbara Olds and her family face a difficult decision.

Earlier this month, the university confirmed her campus apartment had elevated radon levels. Ever since, she’s been uncertain of the next step for her husband and their two children, ages 7 and 5, she said.

Does she uproot her family in the middle of winter into a new place? Or does she just wait and see if the radon levels reduce after the mitigation work?

“We’re frustrated we signed into this,” said Olds, a first-year law student. “It would be one thing if the housing office didn’t know.”

Her family is among six others who moved into the Six Plex apartments this summer. They made the decision without knowing that elevated radon levels had been found in two of the units. The university itself had been aware of the problem since January but didn’t start testing the rest of the 36 Six Plex units, including Olds’, until October.

So far, 12 families have been exposed to elevated radon levels. In a few cases, young children have been exposed to radon concentrations many times higher than the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends action.

Some families have since moved.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive gas that’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, according to the EPA. The gas occurs naturally when uranium found in soil and water decay, but people get the most exposure to it at home, where they spend most of the time in an enclosed space.

UND housing officials said the university has worked to reduce radon levels in three apartment units since October, and there are plans to tackle nine more. They said they’ll expand testing to other campus buildings early next year.

If elevated levels are found in one area on campus, they may be found elsewhere, said Terry Wynne, UND’s associate director for safety who started the job in September.

“This has been an absolute eye-opener for us,” he said.

Dream home

When Olds signed the lease in July for one of the Six Plex apartments, located along State Street and Stanford Road, she was “relieved and happy.”

Students must have at least two children to live in the two-bedroom apartments, which include a basement. The 1,220-square-foot apartment on campus was perfect for her family because it was close to a school and day care, she said.

Plus, with rent at $536 per month, the price was better than anything she could have found in Grand Forks, said Olds, who lived in Detroit Lakes, Minn., before moving here.

Radon can enter a building through cracks in concrete, joints between basement floors and loose-fitting pipes. At Olds’ apartment, it seeped in through the basement.

The EPA suggests homeowners fix their home when exposure levels reach 4 pCi/L. That’s the equivalent of 200 chest X-rays in one year, according to the Kentucky Association of Radon Professionals. The average indoor radon level is 1.3.

Test results from 32 Six Plex apartment units this month show radon levels ranged from 1.0 to 7.9, according to UND reports. The university had previously tested four other units and discovered elevated levels but could not release the results because of student privacy protection laws, said spokesman Peter Johnson.

Children exposed

Children are particularly vulnerable when exposed to radon. Elementary school-age children exposed to a radon level of 4 for one school year – eight hours per day, 180 days in the year – will receive nearly 10 times as much radiation as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows at the edge of a power plant, according to Radon.com, the website affiliated with the radon testing company used by UND.

Several Six Plex residents, like Olds, have children younger than 10.

One mother was pregnant while she lived in the units and another had newborns, according to a Facebook group discussion started by eight residents.

Amber Heise and her family moved out of their unit recently after finding out her radon level was 3.6 and one of her children, Crosby, 1, had elevated lead levels. UND waived the fee for the family to move into a different apartment and they moved out within a week, she said.

Heise, a physician whose husband is in law school, said infants breathe at a rate of 30 to 60 breaths per minute, which is more than twice as fast as adults.

“We all slept in that basement, all of our rooms were downstairs,” she said. “If this was your newborn, and you read what radon does, you would not have placed him in your basement.”

Heidi Soliman’s family was one of the first to contact the housing office after notification had been sent and her apartment was among the first to be mitigated.

Her family had the highest reported radon level – 10.5 in the basement – of all the Six Plex units. That’s the equivalent of being exposed to 500 X-rays a year, she said. Her family includes three children, a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and 11-month-old, and they moved in a little more than three years ago.

After UND placed a ventilation system in, the levels only reduced to 6.8 and 4.2 on the main level, but because the university plans to install a larger system, her family plans on staying, she said.

Based on the exposure to 10.5 levels in her home, her family now has a 50 percent risk of having lung cancer, she said.

Timeline

UND first started testing in late December 2012.

One of the residents, a former homeowner, had past experience with radon and requested the test, said Troy Noeldner, associate director of housing. The university ended up performing short-term and long-term testing on that apartment and the resident manager’s, finding elevated levels in both. UND installed ventilation systems in each but didn’t inform the rest of the Six Plex residents of its efforts.

Johnson said the Housing Office wanted to verify levels were elevated before notifying residents about it.

“We just wanted to make sure we had the best information first,” he said.

But finding one elevated level in a building doesn’t mean the level is the same for all surrounding buildings, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

“There are other variables that contribute to high radon levels,” said Justin Otto, the department’s radon coordinator. “Radon has to be localized, so there has to be uranium in the soil underneath the home, and there also has to be a negative pressure in the house so it can be drawn in. So, just because your neighbor’s house tests high, it doesn’t mean yours will.”