On Tuesday, Vice President for Facilities, Planning and Sustainability Ian Smith announced in a news bulletin that radon testing conducted over winter break revealed elevated levels of the radioactive gas in 43 North Campus Apartment (NCA) and Wilson Apartment units. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which cites radon exposure as the second leading cause of lung cancer nationally, recommends radon levels not exceed four picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The median detected radon level across the 43 units was 24.15 pCi/L, according to Smith. Remediation efforts, which will occur as students continue to reside in the affected apartments, began Wednesday, and the College plans to test the other buildings in the coming weeks, beginning with residences, in order to determine the scope of the contamination.
Vice President of Communications Janet Marsden told the Collegian that 43 out of the 47 units tested contain elevated levels of radon. According to Marsden, only approximately 14.3% of tests reported safe levels measuring 0-4 pCi/L. Meanwhile, 34.3% of the tests reported levels measuring 4.1-20 pCi/L, 30.0% reported levels measuring 20.1-40 pCi/L, 18.6% reported levels between 40 pCi/L and 80 pCi/L and 2.9% reported levels greater than 80 pCi/L.
According to the EPA, radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that occurs as a result of the breakdown of uranium, thorium or radium in rocks, soil and groundwater. People are exposed to radon primarily by breathing in contaminated air that comes through cracks and gaps in building foundations and basement walls, and according to the American Lung Association, Knox County has the highest radon levels in Ohio, with an estimated mean indoor radon level of 23.6 pCi/L. Long term exposure (around 20 years) to radon is linked to an increased chance of developing lung cancer, especially for smokers.
This is not the first time Kenyon has detected heightened levels of the toxic gas. In 1990, the Collegian reported that unsafe levels of radon were first detected in 1988 in a number of buildings around campus including Rosse Hall, the Church of the Holy Spirit and Bailey House. Some remediation was completed at the time, but it was not exhaustive. The article concluded: “The consensus is that the problem must be dealt with in the near future.” While it is unclear if follow up testing occurred, Acting President Jeff Bowman said he is unaware of “any comprehensive testing” for radon that has happened in the past decade.
Last fall, NCA resident Ben Weiner ’23 learned about the College’s previous radon testing and discovered that Ohio has high radon levels. He inquired to the Facility Operations Division about radon levels and mitigation systems in the NCAs. Upon being told that the apartments did not have any active mitigation measures in place, Weiner decided to self-administer a radon test in his own unit, the results of which reported an elevated radon level of 39.3 pCi/L. He shared these results with the College on Nov. 28 and received a response from Smith that the College would take measures to further investigate the issue.
James Henderson ’23 likewise decided to test the radon levels in his own upper-level Taft Cottage last fall. According to Henderson, his self-administered test also reported an elevated level of radon at 4.1 pCi/L, slightly above the safety threshold recommended by the EPA. Henderson emphasized that radon levels are typically smallest on higher levels of buildings — because they are further from the ground and thus from the source of the radiation — so the lower levels of his complex would likely have even more elevated levels. Henderson said that he and his housemates were told testing would occur in all the Tafts over winter break, so he was confused to learn that this never happened.
According to Marsden, after Weiner raised concerns, the College decided to test all of the NCAs and Wilson Apartments, which have similar structures. She said the College hired a senior technical advisor for radon testing and mitigation from Vertex Engineering, an Ohio Department of Health-licensed inspector, to oversee the testing of all of these units over winter break. According to Smith, these tests were conducted using charcoal canisters, which are small metal sampling canisters with a metal screen that covers activated charcoal. These devices were placed in the lower levels of the NCA units for 3-5 days before they were collected and analyzed.
Although the College received results during the second week of January, Marsden explained that Kenyon wanted to have a clear plan for next steps before sharing the results with residents. NCA and Wilson Apartment residents received their specific units’ radon levels in an email Tuesday afternoon, and all students were notified via a News Bulletin later in the day.
Upon receiving emails from the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) that included specific information about the radon levels in their living spaces, several NCA and Wilson apartment residents found themselves in a state of shock from the information they received. “They put the paragraphs in an order that was definitely scarier than it needed to be, because [in] the first paragraph they start by introducing the concept of radon and the idea that there’s something radioactive seeping out from your floor,” said Bryan Fitzgerald ’23, an NCA resident. “I stopped where I was walking and figured I’d probably have to finish the email before I did anything else, because we’ll say the first paragraph really grabbed my attention.”
There is some reason for concern: The invisible, odorless and tasteless gas can only be identified through specialized tests, and, according to the EPA, it is the second leading cause of lung cancer, posing a particularly dangerous risk to smokers. The EPA reports that an estimated 26% of smokers who experience a lifetime exposure to elevated radon levels of 20 pCi/L or more are at risk of developing lung cancer, while 3.6% of people who have never smoked are at risk.
Director of Laboratories in the Departments of Mathematics and Physics Gordon Loveland, who also serves as radiation safety officer in the Department of Physics, clarified, however, that the risk of negative impacts for students, who live in the NCAs for a relatively brief period of time, are very low. The danger of developing lung cancer from radon exposure becomes significant only after long-term exposure, which according to Loveland means more than 20 years. Even the highly elevated levels detected in the NCAs are unlikely to impact students who only briefly live there. “It’s good to have found it. It’s good that the school jumped on remediating it so quickly,” he said. “But, you know, is it a health issue, as far as [students] are concerned? No.”
He also noted that there are several factors that may have contributed to the NCAs’ high radon levels. Ohio, and Knox County specifically, are areas with a high risk of radon due to underground uranium. Radon gas seeps into buildings through cracks or holes in the foundation. Newer buildings, Loveland explained, are more likely to have high radon levels as the gas is trapped inside them more easily than in old, drafty structures. “All buildings that are built currently are built tighter, in order to keep the heat and things like that in, and so you do have to do some checking for radon,” he said. This applies to the NCAs, which were completed in 2012. Additionally, Loveland said the time of year when the tests were conducted could influence the results. During the winter, students are less likely to keep doors and windows open, further trapping radon.
Professionals from Vertex Engineering began assessing NCA units with elevated radon levels on Wednesday to determine necessary remediation efforts, which typically include sealing cracks in the foundation walls, installing new ventilation systems or adapting existing ones to help contaminated air exit the building. Smith noted that the NCAs currently have passive mitigation systems in place, which consist of a piece of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe that runs from the soil underneath the building up through the structure so that air can exit out the roof, usually from the attic.
In order to address the elevated radon levels, Smith explained that the engineers will be converting these simpler systems to active systems, which requires the installation of a blower fan that pulls air up and ejects it out above the roof. According to Smith, these upgrades will cost roughly $1,000 per system. He said that the College has already purchased the blower fans, and they are expected to arrive by Feb. 15. Assuming that they arrive on time, Smith anticipates that contractors will be able to install these systems in a few days, and he noted that the College is considering hiring multiple companies in order to have this work done as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, Marsden emphasized that there is no immediate need for students to be vacated from the NCAs, or any other potentially contaminated spaces, because of the College’s swift response. “We are moving quickly to address [the issue], so I don’t expect that anyone will need to be moving out of their spaces during this process. We can do this work while everyone’s in place,” she said.
This being said, students who do not feel comfortable remaining in their living spaces may opt to pursue other options with ResLife. “The spaces available are rooms that have one or more vacant spots in their total occupancy. These rooms vary across campus, and availability is subject to change,” Director of Residential Life Leah Reuber wrote in an email to the Collegian.
In addition to those remediation efforts, Smith said that contractors will begin testing radon levels and assessing the mitigation systems in South Campus residential buildings on Thursday, and that the College plans to invest in testing other buildings on campus as well. Bowman explained that while Kenyon will not know the full cost until the additional testing is completed, he doesn’t expect it to have a major impact on the College’s finances. “None of the conversations that I’ve had with the facilities people, or with the budget people or what they’ve learned from the experts that we’ve worked with, has led me to believe that this is going to be a significant impact on the College’s budget,” he said.
Smith echoed that the vast majority of work, time and money this project will require is yet to be determined, and depends largely on the radon levels in other spaces on campus and how quickly the contractors the College decides to hire will be able to complete testing, proposals, assessments and installations. “[In] a lot of ways this is like a construction project; you got activities that depend on other activities,” he said. “At present, we’re still in the process, and will be for a while, of getting a good handle on what is the total scope of work, and plan[ning] it so that overall, we get it done as quickly as possible.”
Smith also explained that the College is aware that according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the radon exposure limit for adults working 40 hours a week is 100 pCi/L, and Bowman noted that the College is committed to protecting the health and safety of its faculty and staff. “We’re gonna do everything we can to make sure that employees are not in a place where they are in buildings that have elevated levels of exposure,” he said.
In light of the College’s announcement, several students have expressed concern, though many are grateful that the College has begun taking more aggressive action. “After I sent [the Operations Division] [enough emails], they were pretty responsive to me, and they always got back to me, and it seems like they are taking actual action because of the emails they sent,” Weiner said.
August Hochman ’23, a housemate of Weiner’s, expressed greater discontent as a result of the current situation. “It shouldn’t take a student to put this stuff in the public, for it to be something that the school is talking about,” she said. “We’re students who should be able to focus on our education, and we pay a lot to go to this school. It shouldn’t also be our job to, at every point, try and figure out, ‘Are the buildings that we’re living in safe?’”
Henderson concurred: “I do see it as a pretty astonishing degree of negligence,” he said. “There are a number of people that are responsible for health on campus and residences on campus, and the fact that none of them thought to look into this until a student brought it to their attention is pretty unsettling and does not inspire confidence about their competency or their care about students’ health.”
As many NCA residents grapple with the news that their residences are contaminated with toxic gas, many of them find comfort in the fact that they are not alone in this experience. “This is the kind of thing that a lot of us are going to go through together, whatever it is, and that makes you feel a little bit better,” Fitzgerald said.
Smith reiterated this sentiment and also stressed that the College is working quickly to address the situation at hand. “The administration is working to get these systems in place as quickly as it can be done correctly. In other words, we’re not going to get in a hurry, cut corners just to get it done quickly so people aren’t as upset. It’s more important to do it right,” he said. “Radon is not going to go away. It was here when Philander Chase first rode up onto this hill and decided to put a college here. He was breathing radon right here, sitting here riding around on his horse.”
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Great article, both of you!
Reply to Annalia Fiore
Buildings need to breath. Often a challenge for new sustainable building methods aiming to create a tight energy envelope. Code in many regions requires a continuous running fan to vent stale air and create turnover. A nice feature. Radon mitigation does something similar at the foundation level.
When Philander was at Kenyon life expectancy was about 30-40 years on average. But did radon pool in drafty 1800’s structures? Seems like fresh air turnover would have been significant at that time. They certainly had other pressing health issues back then though.
Reply to Builder
This is good reporting, and a damming article. That last quote in particular is so out of touch it sounds like it came from The Onion. I guess that explains why Kenyon never had an adequate health center: Philander Chase didn't have antibiotics or therapists!
Reply to Alum '14