Yukon government failed to monitor radon in schools after finding high levels in 2008

The Yukon government admits it dropped the ball when it came to monitoring radon in the territory’s schools over the last several years.

The Yukon government admits it dropped the ball when it came to monitoring radon in the territory’s schools over the last several years.

Four Yukon schools — Jack Hulland Elementary, Holy Family Elementary and the Teen Parent Centre in Whitehorse and Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek — were found to have unacceptable radon levels in 2008.

A depressurizing unit was installed at Nelnah Bessie John to try and reduce the radon levels. The Department of Education says it doesn’t have accurate records that show whether any remediation was done in the other three schools.

Radon was not monitored in Yukon schools between 2009 and 2016, meaning the government doesn’t know if the remediation worked at Nelnah Bessie John or how long students and teachers may have been exposed to the cancer-causing gas in any of the schools.

“Basically, there was something missed and we’re picking up with doing the best that we can,” said Miles Hume, the department’s health and safety coordinator.

Hume’s comments came in response to an auditor general’s report, released March 6, that criticized the government for its handling of radon in public buildings.

The government is now monitoring radon in all Yukon schools, and is planning to complete a corporate radon management policy in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Since the government began testing again in 2016, it appears that all four of the same schools are still near or at an unacceptable level of radon, including Nelnah Bessie John. Remediation work has been completed at Jack Hulland and ordered for the other three schools. No other schools seem to be a cause for concern at the moment.

But the government is waiting until the spring to release the results for all schools, because radon levels can vary from day to day and monitoring has to be conducted over at least three months to be accurate. The gas is only dangerous if people are exposed to elevated levels over an extended period.

“And so it’s important if you have an ongoing monitoring system that you look over a longer period,” said Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s deputy chief medical officer of health.

Radon gas occurs naturally in certain kinds of soil, but it can seep up into buildings in the winter and can reach dangerous levels as it accumulates. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, but does not cause any other disease.

Elliott said one in 100 people who are not exposed to radon and who do not smoke will develop lung cancer. That increases to one in 50 with exposure to radon and one in six for people who smoke and who are exposed to the gas.

She said children are at increased risk from radon because they have smaller lungs and breathe more quickly, so they’re exposed to more of the gas.

Back in 2008, unacceptable radon levels were also found in seven of 21 private child-care centres and family day homes tested by the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board.

But there, too, was a lack of follow-up.

Health and safety board spokesperson Andrew Robulack told the News that no one ever checked to see if the private centres had fixed the problem.

“The follow-ups weren’t done at the time because of a shortage of resources,” he said.

In 2016, the board went back to four of the seven centres — the others had either closed or moved — and has begun monitoring for a minimum of three months. It found that one of the centres had done work to mitigate the problem, but the other three had not.

Still, the board doesn’t have plans to begin more systematic monitoring of the private centres.

“We’d like to stress that it is the employer’s responsibility to monitor health and safety in the workplace,” Robulack said.

The board can issue orders to businesses that require remediation. Still, employers are only obliged to share those orders with workers — not with parents or children, in the case of a child-care centre.

Robulack said he hopes employers would be “good citizens.”

The auditor general’s report on capital assets also found that even though the Yukon government has recently inspected the condition of most of its buildings, it still isn’t using that information to make decisions about upkeep.

“These assessments have identified potentially serious deficiencies, such as mould, fire hazards, and major structural concerns,” the report reads.

But because the accuracy of that data hasn’t been verified, it can’t yet be used.

Casey Thomas, principal of the auditor general’s office, said her office recommended that the Yukon government start inspecting its buildings almost 10 years ago.

“We were concerned to learn that departments were not yet using the information because the Department of Highways and Public Works had not yet verified the accuracy of the data in the assessments,” she said during a briefing March 5.

On March 6, Scott Milton, assistant deputy minister of the Department of Highways and Public Works, explained that the assessments conducted after 2007 weren’t completed or recorded in a systematic way. Two or three years ago, he said, the department had to start fresh with a more rigorous approach.

The department says it will verify and begin using the data for maintenance decisions in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

The report also chastised the government for only investigating three of 57 buildings that were identified as vulnerable to permafrost in 2011.

“I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t had a systematic approach for permafrost monitoring,” Milton admitted. “That’s a requirement for us going forward, and that’s what we’re going to be doing.”

He said the remaining 54 buildings should be assessed by July.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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