University of North Dakota’s radon problem: Campus apartment residents say they weren’t told of high radon levels
GRAND FORKS — Days before Christmas, University of North Dakota student Barbara Olds and her family face a difficult decision.
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.
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 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, such as 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 over 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.
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.”
In the following months, UND tested two other apartments that came back elevated, and by early October had sent out an email to all Six Plex residents about their efforts. The university said it would conduct additional testing, provided a link to the EPA website and that “prolonged exposure to radon has been linked to medical concerns,” but nothing further, residents said.
However, UND had a mix-up in mailing the initial test results, which prompted retesting and a roughly two-month delay that the university didn’t explain, residents said.
Last week, UND sent all residents their test results.
Lack of info
Several residents said they were upset they weren’t informed earlier of the elevated radon levels.
They just wanted to make an informed choice about housing, and many would have decided to live elsewhere, they said.
Terry O’Clair, director of the division of air quality at the North Dakota Department of Health, said the university was under no obligation to inform residents.
“There’s no obligation to report it even to us,” he said. “We can try to help them through the process by identifying what they can do to find it, and once it’s found, we would send something to show what can be done to fix the situation.”
Despite being a health concern, there’s no specific regulation on it, he said.
Laurie Betting, associate vice president of student affairs, pledged to Six Plex residents Wednesday to provide better communication to all residents in the future. Housing officials called a meeting for residents in part to start this process, they said.
“One thing I want to own, from our part and to make apology for, is the communication,” she said. “I think it has been lacking as far as informing residents of the status, the test results and our progress.”
Soliman, one of a few residents who appeared at the meeting Wednesday, said she genuinely appreciated how UND agreed the situation should have been handled differently.
“UND seems to feel confident that they followed EPA guidelines properly, but we should not let the EPA guidelines determine our moral compass,” she said later. “We must reduce our known risks when we know about them and change the way we live accordingly.”
The university started mitigation work on apartments reporting at a 3.7 level and higher, aiming to finish the work by Jan. 1, housing and safety officials said.
The EPA suggests that building owners with exposure levels of at least 4 start addressing the situation within one to three years, Betting said.
UND has offered to relocate families, waive lease fees and reduce the radon levels in apartments that families want to stay in, officials said Wednesday. Each Six Plex apartment will be tested again twice in the next year and, if the levels are sufficiently low, the university will follow up with regular tests.
Suzy Belyea, associate director of housing, told residents Wednesday the university stopped assigning Six Plex units and informed two families who previously planned on transferring about the radon problem.
Everyone should test their home for elevated radon levels, not just UND, because the effects of radon poisoning don’t appear until several years later, Otto said.
North Dakotans are at particular risk because every county in the state has potentially high radon levels. Otto said 63 percent of all homes in the state test at elevated levels, but the homes are scattered all over, so it’s not concentrated in one area.
“People of all ages can be affected by radon,” he said. “And the age of the home doesn’t matter. It could have been built in the 1800s or it could have been built yesterday, and you could still have radon problems. The only way you know is if you test.”
What you can do: To order a free radon test kit, contact Otto at the North Dakota Department of Health at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lab results are free, too.