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NBC 10 I-Team: Elevated radon in two North Providence schools; Demo of schools begin

Whelan Elementary School in North Providence and at least one other school has elevated levels of radon. (WJAR)

Two North Providence elementary schools that have come under fire as possible “sick schools” show elevated levels of radon above the federal and state acceptable levels for occupied areas, the NBC 10 I-Team has learned.

At least three North Providence schools were tested in the last 18 months and two of those schools – Dr. Joseph Whelan and Stephen Olney – showed elevated levels of radon, a radioactive gas that is known as a human carcinogen.

Elevated levels of radon were found in two ground-floor classrooms at Whelan and in the southeast, center and northwest crawl space at Olney. Asbestos was also found in Whelan, Olney and McGuire.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that schools act to reduce the level of radon when levels are 4 pCi/L.

According to reports obtained by the NBC 10 I-Team, a March 2016 radon test at Whelan, detected levels in classrooms of 5.4 and 6.1. At Stephen Olney, during a May 2017 test, the levels were 4.8, 5.5 and 6.3.

“My understanding was that these readings were not a concern and no remedial action was warranted,” John McNamee, the North Providence department director of finance, told the I-Team regarding Whelan.

Per the U.S. EPA, when radon levels in a school reach 4 pCi/L or higher, but are below 10 pCi/L, a follow-up test should be conducted during the school year and within the nine months immediately following the initial test period. If the follow-up measurement is also higher than 4, a diagnostic test needs to be conducted and a mitigation strategy implemented.

There is no record of a follow-up report or any record of a test after March 2016, according to the school department.

Response, “not ideal”

Deb Mesolella, a retired teacher who recently battled pancreatic cancer, contacted the NBC 10 I-Team after realizing that a number of her colleagues were also diagnosed with different forms of the disease.

Mesolella, who is one of at least 20 teachers in that town diagnosed with cancer, said the administration responded to concerns of mold and poor air in the buildings where she and others worked, but said the response wasn’t ideal.

“I always felt there was response from them and things were addressed, but you never came away feeling like it was addressed enough,” Mesolella said.

Mesolella recalls at least two radon tests being conducted at Whelan while she worked there before retiring in 2013. She said for the first, she was made aware of the test, and teachers were told to keep windows closed.

She said a second test was handled differently.

“I had a radon box in my classroom and my windows had been open, so I said something, but was told ‘don’t worry about it.’”

Mesolella said she didn’t think it would be an accurate sample because she wasn’t made aware of the test and worried that the opened windows and movement in the classroom would impact the results.

The former teacher wasn’t the only one calling attention to issues at the school. A December 2012 email obtained by the NBC 10 I-Team shows a school employee warned of complaints from teachers and a parent asking about air quality in the school as a cause of symptoms.

“I am very concerned of the wellbeing of my faculty and students,” states the email sent to the then-superintendent, a school department supervisor and teachers.

Changing his mind

Mesolella, a former teachers’ union representative, and several other teachers, parents and former students believe there may be a connection between their illnesses and North Providence schools and hoped the city would delay the proposed demolition of Olney and McGuire to determine if mold, asbestos or other environmental hazards could have caused or factored into their illnesses.

Mayor Charles Lombardi said he would do what it takes to find answers even if it means delaying demolition, but later told the NBC 10 I-Team, the town must proceed with its plans.

The sites were turned over to Gilbane on July 5 to begin the demolition process, which includes the remediation of asbestos in accordance with the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“It’s unfortunate that the mayor has changed his mind on the demolition of the McGuire school,” Mesolella said. “I think he is making a poor decision. I think he’s putting a construction contract ahead of the health and welfare of kids that will be going to that school.”

From the expert

Dr. Tongzhang Zheng, an epidemiologist who conducted cancer research for the past 27 years linking human exposures to environmental factors to human cancer risk, also questioned the decision to demolish the old buildings before getting answers.

“I cannot understand why the Health Department and the school cannot measure radon levels before they demolish the building unless they have the data already,” he said. “If they insist on demolishing it without measuring the levels and do not have historical data, this would leave all sides with doubts.”

Zheng told the NBC 10 I-Team that radon is linked to lung and breast cancer. An I-Team investigation found 15 of the 20 teachers had some form of breast cancer and several former North Providence elementary school students from the graduating class of 1984 and 1985 also have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Measuring radon is so easy, so cheap and takes so little time and effort, Zheng said.

“If the teachers worked at the area that is so close to the basement, I think the authority will only bring themselves trouble late by not measuring the radon levels,” Zheng added.

Transition moves forward

The Rhode Island Department of Health told the NBC 10 I-Team that keeping the two schools in place would not allow the department to learn anything new about preventing future exposures to hazardous substances, such as asbestos or mold.

“It is important that the transition moves forward,” Joseph Wendelken, a health department spokesperson said. “Keeping the two buildings in place would also not substantially contribute to the analysis we are doing to determine if there is an abnormal rate of cancers with known environmental origins amount faculty and staff.”

Zheng somewhat agreed with any testing done of materials inside the building saying, “I would think it will not help much by measuring the chemicals existing inside the building today since the current levels will have nothing to do with the levels when the diseases onset due to renovation and changes of furniture. However, radon level will not change much.”

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