An exercise room in the basement of Camas City Hall was closed for 11 days after testing revealed a high level of radon gas.
City Administrator Pete Capell confirmed that the elevated amount of radon, a naturally-occurring radioactive gas, was discovered during an annual air quality check. On May 1, the city received a report from Portland based Cascade Radon, Inc., stating that the average reading was 8.0 pCi/L (picocuries of radiation per liter of air).
According to Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, to be safe levels of radon must be below 4.0 pCi/L. Readings of 1.3 pCi/L are the indoor national average. Levels of 4.0 pCi/L are considered ‘action level,’ indicating the need to retest or fix the building.
“Other areas of the building, including other portions of the basement, were all at acceptable levels,” Capell said.
Radon, which is produced through the natural radioactive breakdown of uranium in soil, cannot be detected by sight, taste or smell.
According to Capell, an email was distributed to employees May 4 noting that the exercise room was “closed for maintenance.” Specific details about the reason behind the action were not included in the email. A “closed for maintenance” sign was also posted on the workout room door.
“The recommendation from the consultant was to open the doors to the room to create better air circulation while people were using the workout facilities,” he said. “I thought that was a bad idea, and that we should close the room until necessary repairs were completed. While the email notifying employees did not include the reason for the closure, we have been forthright in telling people that we had elevated radon levels in the room, if they asked.”
Annual radon tests at City Hall, 616 N.E. Fourth Ave., began in 2010, when an elevated level of radon was detected in 18 of 31 areas tested at City Hall. At that time, the HVAC system was modified to increase air flow.
“We have tested regularly since then, and found acceptable radon levels every year until this year,” Capell said.
Following the elevated radon level reading reported May 1, a second round of testing was conducted May 12. High radon levels were again detected in the exercise room, but it was determined that they were at acceptable levels when the HVAC system was operating — from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“We will determine if we need to change the time frame that the HVAC is operating or make other improvements, as needed,” Capell said.
The exercise room was re-opened May 15.
The facility is used primarily by personnel from the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, which has a fire station staffed 24 hours a day attached to the municipal center. Other city employees are also allowed access.
According to CWFD Firefighter-Paramedic Michael Coyle, president of the IAFF Local 2444 East Clark Professional Fire Fighters, employees are allocated one hour per day for physical fitness during each shift. The workout room, which includes equipment such as treadmills, elliptical machines and free weights, is used “intermittently.” Frequency of use could depend on factors such as call volume and weather.
“From the union perspective, our concern has been getting an answer to how long has this been going on, and our potential risk of exposure,” said Coyle, who has worked for the CWFD for eight years. “At this time, we’re waiting for results on questions about test frequency and risk factors.”
After the “closed for maintenance” sign was posted, some CWFD personnel continued to use the room thinking that the closure was for equipment maintenance. Further inquires led to the discovery that the issue was radon.
According Coyle, city officials have been responsive to inquiries and he believes they have provided information as it has been available to them.
“Up to this point, they have been forthright and we have been given the answers we’ve requested,” he said.
On May 14, Capell sent an email to all city employees offering a more detailed description of why the room was closed and when it would reopen, and seeking input.
“I would like to hear from regular users of the room to determine if we need to change operating hours of the HVAC system, make other improvements to the system or limit the hours that the workout room is open,” the email stated. “If you do choose to work out when the HVAC is not operating, I recommend that you open the doors and turn on the fans.”
Elevated levels of radon are not uncommon in Clark County. According to the EPA, Clark County has been designated as a “Red Zone,” meaning it has the highest potential for elevated indoor radon levels.
In 2010, high levels of radon gas were detected in six areas of Washougal’s City Hall building.
As a result, the city paid Cascade Radon, Inc. nearly $20,000 to conduct a ventilation process. Employees were relocated to other buildings while the work was completed.
According to the EPA, nationwide radon is estimated to cause 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually. It is second only to smoking as the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.