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Published February 03, 2014, 01:01 PM

UND claims progress on radon in campus housing

Grand Forks, ND - UND law student Dana Blue just finished moving her family back into a campus housing unit after spending weeks avoiding elevated radon levels there.

By: Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, INFORUM, Forum News Service

Grand Forks, ND - UND law student Dana Blue just finished moving her family back into a campus housing unit after spending weeks avoiding elevated radon levels there.

Although not ideal, this offers some closure to her frustration at the university over a problem she and other residents claim they should have been informed of a year ago, she said.

Testing in December revealed a dozen families in UND’s Six Plex units had been exposed to radon levels at or higher than the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends action.

In recent months, UND housing officials have been scrambling to reduce the levels in those units, residents said. University officials say their efforts have been successful so far.

Blue is one of six families who moved into the units along State Street and Stanford Road this summer without knowing of the health threat. Residents said UND had been aware of the problem since January 2013, but didn’t start testing the rest of the 36 units until October.

“It’s not an experience I’d like to go through again,” Blue said.

Radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless radioactive gas that’s the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, according to the EPA. Naturally decaying uranium found in soil produces the gas, which typically moves up through the ground and leaks into homes through cracks and holes in the foundation.

After testing all of the units, UND began installing suction fans and ventilation pipes. So far, 80 housing units in addition to the Six Plex units have been tested, but no elevated levels have been found, said spokesman Peter Johnson.

“So far, they haven’t really found anything,” he said.

Still working

Heidi Soliman’s unit still requires more work.

Of all the units, hers had reported the highest radon level with 10.5 in the basement. Based on this exposure, her family has an elevated risk of getting lung cancer, she said.

The average indoor radon level is 1.3 picocuries per liter. Picocuries is a standard for measuring radon. The EPA suggests homeowners treat their home when exposure levels reach 4 pCi/L.

Soliman said the university has made two attempts at mitigation in her unit, which has helped reduce the level in her basement to 4.8. Levels in other rooms have decreased, too, such as the bedroom where her children sleep, which is now at 2.8.

Children are particularly vulnerable to radon exposure. Elementary school-age children exposed to a radon level of 4 for one school year — eight hours per day, 180 days of 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.

Soliman said she’s still concerned about the 4.8 level in the basement, where she and her husband sleep. As it’s the end of January and she’s unsure what UND will do to alleviate the problem, she doesn’t feel the university has responded appropriately, she said.

“I did contact (the associate director of housing) and he said they are looking into solutions since the levels are still not low enough,” she said in an email.

Her family did not move into temporary housing during the testing. So far, they haven’t found an affordable alternative, and as her husband is attending medical school and might get matched with a residency soon, they don’t want to move and possibly break a lease, she said.

Justin Otto, radon coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Health, said a mitigation system can fix any level of radon in the home, and it’s not uncommon for additional work to be needed. Some levels have been as high as 180 in the state, he said.

Resolved?

Many of the Six Plex units now have levels below or at 3.6, the threshold the university has set for action, said Johnson.

“Right now, we’re very comfortable with the ones that have been re-tested,” he said.

Since late December, six new families have moved into the units. Two families moved into units that were still undergoing mitigation, and after they were informed of the situation, decided to move in anyway, he said. The other four moved into units that had already been mitigated, but Johnson was uncertain if they had been informed.

“I think communication to all residents will be sent pretty soon” about the radon testing, he said.

Barbara Olds and her family, who have two children under 10, first reported a level of 4.4. After the university installed piping in her basement, the level fell to 1.4.

She’s relieved, especially as her family was debating whether they should move during Christmas break, she said.

“It would be nice if they regularly tested every now and again,” she said.

Blue is a single mother of three children, including two infants. Testing in her unit initially found a level of 3.7, so she moved her family into temporary furnished housing provided by the university, she said. The level has since decreased to 0.9.

Even though she graduates in May with a law degree, she still feels a little unnerved, she said. People are still moving out, and she still feels uncertain about the safety of the building, she said. She also doubts the testing because of what she calls UND’s “incompetency” during its initial effort.

A mix-up in mailing the very first test results prompted retesting and a two-month delay that the university didn’t explain, residents said.

“You don’t really know if what they tell you this time around is actually accurate,” she said.

At a meeting with residents in December, UND officials said they would retest all units again a couple times a year to see if radon levels had remained at low levels.

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