Kenyon announced on Jan. 31 that the North Campus Apartments (NCAs) have radon gas concentrations far above guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In response to a student’s self-conducted test, Kenyon tested 47 buildings and found that 43 had elevated concentrations of radon, with a median of 24.15 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The EPA recommends that buildings with radon concentrations above 4.0 pCI/L should immediately install mitigation systems. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
As a resident of one of those NCAs, I am grateful that remediation has already begun in my apartment. Testing remaining residences and workplaces, along with installing mitigation systems when appropriate, will take time. Kenyon should take the time to do it right.
That said, Kenyon’s action is about 33 years too late. A Collegian article from 1990 shows that the College found similarly high levels of radon gas in several buildings on campus. While some remediation efforts resulted from these tests, they were evidently not comprehensive.
Knox County has the highest mean concentration of radon in Ohio — that is all the more reason Kenyon should have been proactive. It isn’t the College’s fault that Kenyon’s campus is at a high risk for radon exposure as a result of its location. Though the College cannot be held at fault for geology, the administration had the opportunity and knowledge to mitigate the problem and failed to do so.
We cannot let the College’s response obscure the systemic issues that led to this massive oversight. It is grossly negligent that the College knew this issue was widespread by 1990 but failed to comprehensively investigate building safety, install mitigation systems and ensure new construction had appropriate protections.
How did it get this bad? What actually happened? I urge the Board of Trustees to formally investigate how this happened and, to prevent similar oversights, ensure that better processes are in place in all parts of the College. One of the most glaring problems seems to be one of institutional memory. The radon discovery in 1990 should have been treated seriously at the time, and subsequent vice presidents of Facilities, Planning and Sustainability, the role most directly responsible for building safety, should have been alerted to this problem. If carcinogen exposure got lost in a leadership transition, what else has dropped off the radar? Given the administration’s high rate of staff turnover, flawed record-keeping and transitions can have serious ramifications across the institution.
Students are required to live on campus, but Kenyon has been a bad landlord. Mold has been a problem across campus, but particularly in the New Apartments. Only when students independently conducted mold tests and faced adverse health consequences did Residential Life conduct comprehensive tests — which confirmed what students had been saying for years. The list goes on: campus construction unearthed asbestos; the Meadow Lane modular units have faced a host of problems. The radon discovery is just the latest incident in a pattern of disregard for the living standards of residences.
No person deserves to live or work in an unhealthy environment. This issue is not about money. It’s not about the fact that Kenyon charges over $80,000 for tuition, room and board, though that makes the negligence more ridiculous.
This is about how much Kenyon cares about the wellbeing of its community. Most students will likely not face adverse effects of radon exposure, as we reside on campus on a short-term basis. But the root cause, mismanagement, has impacted our lives at Kenyon in a myriad of other ways.
More to the point, employees of the College deserve better. Students should care that employees have been exposed to a carcinogen for 35 years when it didn’t have to be that way. We should care that this institution didn’t see that as a major problem — until students forced it to.
Kenyon’s administrative capacity and institutional memory has been inadequate for decades. There’s no one person to blame; responsibility is diffused among many people, most of whom no longer work here. Nevertheless, this institution must critically reflect on its history and current processes to learn from past mistakes.
Theresa Carr ’23 is a political science major from Coral Springs, FL. She can be reached at email@example.com.