Officials solving radon puzzle at school | SummitDaily.com
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Officials solving radon puzzle at school

Lu Snyder

BRECKENRIDGE – Officials believe they have found a short-term solution for the radon problems at Upper Blue Elementary School; they will run the building’s ventilation system ’round the clock.

“It brings the (radon) levels down really fast,” said Mike Arnold, facilities director for the school district.

Officials continue to monitor radon levels at the school after tests last week showed abnormally high levels of the radioactive gas in the southwest wing of the building.

Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the natural decay of uranium found in most soils – especially those in mountainous or mining areas. The action level for radon is 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) and immediate action is required for levels exceeding 100 pCi/L.

The district hired Ace Radon Co. this summer after repeated tests showed levels in the school ranging from 4 to 41.7 pCi/L.

Although initial tests showed radon levels decreasing after the completion of mitigation work, tests last week recorded levels as high as 96 pCi/L in the building’s southwest wing. School officials vacated the wing’s three classes, moving the students and teachers to temporary quarters elsewhere in the building.

Since then, school officials and Ace Radon consultants have been working to determine the cause of the elevated radon levels so they can proceed with effective mitigation work.

On Sunday, Arnold met with Jeff Goard, owner of Ace Radon Co., to review data from a high-tech radon monitor they installed Thursday. The monitor prints continuous data and needed to be run a minimum of 48 hours for the results to be considered statistically accurate.

Armed with three days of test results, Arnold and Goard said they are confident the radon levels are highest in the building at night and on weekends.

Upper Blue was built on about 50 to 60 feet of dredge material, creating a very porous base beneath the building, Arnold said. As long as the school’s ventilation system is running, the building has enough air pressure to keep the radon levels under control.

As with most modern commercial buildings, however, Upper Blue’s ventilation system is designed to shut off at night and on weekends to conserve energy. Without the ventilation system, the building’s air pressure drops and radon levels increase.

“Mostly, we’re getting low air pressure, and that’s what’s driving the gas in,” Goard said.

Typically, Goard helps ventilate buildings by opening the doors and windows. But at Upper Blue, this creates a further drop in air pressure.

“That’s really the strangest anomaly of this building … short-term ventilation isn’t really effective,” he said.

To illustrate, Goard compares the building with a cup placed upside down in the water. Because the air pressure within the cup is positive, water won’t enter the cup – even if it’s completely submerged.

“If the air pressure is positive, nothing comes in,” he said. “Opening a window is like putting a hole in your cup.”

According to the past three days of data, radon levels seem to stay somewhat low – between 4 and 12 pCi/L – when the ventilation system is running. But when it’s off, levels build up – reaching highs around 90 pCi/L.

“The people, fortunately, are in the building when the levels are low,” Goard said. “It appears that the highest levels – the alarming levels – are in the middle of the night.”

As a short-term solution, officials will run the ventilation system 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while Ace Radon continues improving its mitigation systems.

On Friday, workers began installing a depressurization system around the perimeter of the building’s foundation. Goard said they likely will complete their work within two weeks, but they will continue work until the problem is solved.

“I’m fully committed to being here to do whatever it takes,” he said.

Lu Snyder can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or lsnyder@summitdaily.com


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