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Students learn about radon

October 18, 2000

Students learn about radon



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - When it comes to a certain, dangerous, tasteless, odorless gas, Berkeley County doesn't have a very good record.

That's why Twila Stowers Carr was out in public schools Wednesday talking to students.

The county's chief sanitarian wants students to start understanding why radon is such a threat in the county, and what they can do to protect themselves from it.

Of the homes that have been tested for radon in the county, 63 percent of them have revealed high radon levels, according to the state Health Department. Jefferson County's rates practically mirror Berkeley's, showing that 63.3 percent of homes in that county that have been tested have high radon levels, according to the state Health Department.

In Morgan County, 54 percent of homes tested have high radon levels, the health department said.

Experts believe radon gas rises up through fractured limestone bedrock, which is prevalent throughout the Eastern Panhandle and portions of Maryland and Virginia, according to Carr.

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New homes being built must have radon gas mitigation systems, but there are no such regulations for older homes. Homeowners in the Eastern Panhandle are encouraged to test their homes for the presence of radon to determine if steps need to be taken to reduce the substance, Carr said.

Radon has been classified as a carcinogen, and is considered to be the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country, Carr said.

Two years ago, the Berkeley County Health Department began visiting schools and handing out radon test kits to children. Health Department officials figured distributing the kits to children would be a good way to get homeowners to test for the gas, according to Carr.

The number of homes that have showed high levels of radon gas were determined through 300 test kits that have been handed out to schools since 1998, Carr said.

This week, Carr expects to distribute roughly another 120 kits to students at Winchester Avenue Elementary School, Opequon Elementary School off North Queen Street and Mill Creek Intermediate School near Bunker Hill.

Wednesday, Carr gave out test kits to students at Winchester Avenue Elementary School. To ensure the completed kits are returned for testing, Carr threw in a little incentive: free Nerf footballs.

"You could have a football fight in the cafeteria some day, right? I need your help," she told students.

Carr captured the students' attention with an overhead presentation that blended Halloween-like effects with the dangers of radon. Then she showed them a intricate model of a house that used lights to show how radon seeps into a house from the ground.

Nine-year-old D.J. Fulk was not sure whether his house has radon, but he was going to find out. "Our house has a real big basement, so I'm not sure about it," Fulk said.

Although Carr said Berkeley County has a fairly high rate of lung cancer, health officials have been unable to determine if radon gas is a leading cause for the disease.

The problem is that when vital statistics are collected on lung cancer deaths in the state, there is no data available telling whether the victim was a smoker or lived in a house with high radon levels, said Beattie DeBord, chief of the radiological health program in the state Department of Health.

"We called some hospitals and they couldn't help us with that either," DeBord said.

Carr's visit to schools this week is being conducted in conjunction with National Radon Action Week. Besides the kits being distributed at schools, about 60 free kits will be given away at the county health department at 800 South Queen St. for anyone who wants one, Carr said.

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