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Local University Students Develop Innovative Sampling Procedures

When employee complaints of high radon levels in basement office areas at Western Carolina University were reported to Jon Maddy, the University’s Director of Safety and Risk Management, action needed to be taken immediately. Although there had been no original testing of these areas, an employee expressed concern that workers were being exposed to a high level of radon. Consequently, Maddy brought an innovative idea to Dr. Tracy Zontek, an Environmental Health professor at the University. A research study was proposed in which students were given the opportunity to test University buildings. Also, the school invited Catherine Rosfjord from the North Carolina Radon Program to complete a workshop on testing large buildings. Staff from the Jackson County Health Department attended this event as well.

All testing was completed during the winter months. A project plan was developed that included identification of a team, creation of a sample strategy, comprehensive education and training along with coordinating with university officials. When students began sampling efforts, a large variety of buildings were tested across campus. If similar buildings existed in similar locations, students would monitor only one of these buildings due to limited resources and decided to possibly follow up on the other building later. Students also tested older buildings as well as new buildings to see if construction and ventilation played a role in radon levels.

A number of challenges arose throughout the experience, including determining which buildings to test. This was due to the fact that a limited number of radon tests kits were available. A variety of buildings were chosen, old and new, dorms and offices, and in different locations across campus. After the buildings were chosen, the floor plans were reviewed to determine the number and the location of monitors for each building. An additional challenge was making sure proper testing conditions were maintained and the tests were not tampered. The students checked the monitors every day and took pictures, documenting any changes. When the results came back, any high readings were retested to check for interference or testing errors. The final milestones of the project included the reviewing and reporting of results along with the creation of an exhaustive report.

For those interested in implementing a similar event in the future, know that testing large buildings on a college campus requires a coordinated effort by the college and those conducting the testing. It is essential to gain permissions to test buildings. In addition, if blueprints of floor plans can be acquired, it will greatly facilitate in developing the sampling plan. It is also important to notify students and faculty that buildings are being tested and ask them to not disturb the test devices to ensure valid test results. Finally, if students are conducting the testing, it is vital to train them in proper testing procedures so the validity of the test results can be trusted.

While there are currently no plans for mitigation due to financial constraints, the affected areas no longer have occupants. Many thanks are to be given to Dr. Zontek and the Environmental Health students who took on this project, developed the sampling plan and deployed the radon test kits. This event would also have not been possible without the support of the North Carolina Radon program for providing the test kits. In addition, these efforts would not have been possible without funding from Western Carolina University and the Director of Safety and Risk Management, Jon Maddy.

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