GAMBIER, Ohio (WCMH) – Scores of student apartments at Kenyon College have high radon levels, the college announced last week, prompting it to begin testing all campus buildings for the radioactive gas.
The college announced in a news release that of 47 student apartments on campus tested over the school’s winter break, 43 units had levels of radon above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended threshold. Because the harmful effects of radon occur over long periods of exposure, the college is not moving students from units with elevated levels but has begun remediation and will test remaining residential buildings “as quickly as possible.”
Radon, produced from the decay of uranium and other radioactive elements, is a naturally-occurring odorless gas found in rocks, soil, and groundwater. While small amounts of radon are globally omnipresent, harmful exposure occurs primarily when the gas in soil leaks through cracks and holes in building foundations and accumulates inside.
The EPA’s threshold for picocuries of radon per liter of air is 4 pCi/L, above which it recommends taking immediate mitigation measures. The tested apartments had a median radon concentration of 24.15 pCi/L and a mean radon concentration of 27.09 pCi/L, both more than six times the acceptable limit for repeated, long-term exposure.
Radon leaks can be remediated in several ways, including by sealing foundational cracks, pressurizing the affected room or building, or using a heat recovery ventilator. Radon levels can vary from room to room and may not be elevated in all parts of a building.
Kenyon has consulted with “environmental and industry experts” to develop a testing and remediation plan for all buildings on campus, starting with residential buildings. The college will also set routine radon testing and remediation procedures for the future, the release states.
Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers in the U.S. and the second leading cause of lung cancer generally, according to the EPA. About 21,000 people in the U.S. die from radon-induced lung cancer each year, of whom more than 10% are non-smokers. While it can prove deadly over long periods of exposure – when living in a building with elevated levels for years, for instance – radon does not cause symptoms or health effects in the short term.
Smokers are particularly at risk for complications from radon exposure, according to the EPA, with more than 1 in 4 smokers likely to develop lung cancer if exposed to radon levels above 20 pCi/L over their lifetime. By comparison, about 2% of smokers may develop lung cancer due to exposure to the national average level of indoor radon, 1.3 pCi/L, over their lifetime.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, 25 counties’ average indoor radon concentration was above the EPA threshold in 2020, including Knox – where Kenyon is – Franklin, Delaware, Licking, Fairfield, Madison, and Ross counties. Knox County’s 2020 median indoor radon concentration was 6 pCi/L — the second-highest in the state, and less than 1/4 the median radon concentration found in the tested Kenyon student apartments.
Kenyon began testing student apartments after a student reported high levels from a self-administered test in late November, according to the press release. A Kenyon spokesperson said in an email the 47 selected units had similar designs to the initial student’s apartment. The college plans to finish remediation in the initially tested units by the end of February and will address elevated radon levels in other buildings as it tests the rest of campus.
You can find information about radon’s health risks here. Ohio homeowners are eligible for free radon test kits from the Ohio Department of Health. The Ohio Department of Health also has a map of licensed radon testers and mitigation contractors in the state.