On-Campus Research Experience for Undergrad
Fall 2023 Opportunities
Utah Radon Lab
Application Closes: August 1st, 2023
Project Overview and Motivations
While Utah has one of the lowest smoking rates in the United States, lung cancer is the number one cause of death in the state. One important factor is the persistent problem of radon exposure. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that forms when uranium, or radium, breaks down in rocks, soil, and groundwater. Radon typically emerges from the ground and enters buildings through cracks, holes, and porous materials in the foundation. Once inside, radon is often trapped where it accumulates and results in elevated radon exposure in humans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends testing buildings for radon every 2-5 years.
According to the EPA, 1 in 15 homes in the United States have elevated levels of radon, but in Utah and the surrounding states of Wyoming and Colorado elevated radon is found in 1 in 3 homes (Air Chek, 2022). As far as schools, 1 in 5 have been shown to have elevated radon levels (Davis, et al., 2020). Despite this, most schools in Utah have never been tested for radon. Children in Utah spend approximately 1092 hours and teachers and staff spend over 1600 hours annually in these structures.
To better understand the role of radon in Utah schools, a team of researchers from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University have joined forces to study this phenomenon. The goal of this research partnership is to test schools in seven districts in Utah to identify their current radon levels and general building characteristics. This team will also identify the best practices when testing schools for radon. Based on this data collection, the team will look for building characteristics associated with elevated radon, assess schools for elevated radon, and propose a testing protocol for state decision-makers and legislators to prevent future exposures in school populations in Utah
Our research team is working in cooperation with the Utah Radon Coordinator to test public schools in Utah and to help develop a state-wide testing protocol. An additional research goal is to collaborate with the state to implement a full-scale application of the project to assure schools in the state are tested at regular intervals as suggested by the EPA. Our research will address three questions:
1. Can Utah public schools be tested effectively to quantify their range of radon exposure?
2. What building characteristics play a role in radon exposure in schools?
3. How can research data contribute to meaningful policies and actions around radon testing in the state of Utah to protect children in school settings?
The immediate goal at this stage is data collection. To accomplish this task, we are establishing the Utah Radon Lab at the University of Utah. This lab will provide a semester long research experience (with an additional semester possible for the most exceptional candidates) through the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Undergraduate Research Program. Approximately 20 students will be recruited to participate in the Radon Lab. An adjacent Lab will be established at BYU, where an additional 20 students will be supported.
Students will be taught how to engage with school administrators and facilities personnel, administer building surveys, and conduct radon testing. Students will have to travel to schools to deploy and collect radon tests, following a test protocol, and to conduct building surveys. Students in the Radon Lab will also engage in research activities associated with the project including: grant writing, research ethics, data management and analysis, academic writing and publication, science communication, and public policy formation.
Following the initial round of testing, our team will conduct follow up testing of high radon sites in the state using advanced testing equipment. We will also work during this period to fill in missing testing data in the schools in our sample. Once the data collection is completed, our team will conduct analysis on the data to address specific research questions. We will also apply for external funding to launch a full state testing system and to provide mitigation for schools in the state with elevated radon. We will also disseminate our findings to local stakeholders and communities. During this period, our team will prepare a series of journal articles.
We will work with schools to develop and implement evidence-based, low-cost interventions that improve the health of children and school employees who are exposed to the long-term effects of radon in school settings. Based on the findings of this research, our team will be able to identify important building factors related to elevated radon in schools. We will also be able to classify schools requiring radon mitigation and to work with these schools to both undergo the mitigation processes and to set up a future testing protocol to keep these schools radon free. We will also train a range of graduate and undergraduate students about conducting environmental research and create ongoing awareness and greater resiliency in our state. Our team will also apply for external funding to develop a statewide testing protocol and provide education and information sessions on this subject to schools and families in our state.
· Students will present jointly at the CSBS and UROP Conference
· Students will apply for travel and research funds as part of the project
· Students will travel to schools around the state and deploy and pick up radon tests
· Students will participate in data collection and help to write a journal article with our research team.
· Some exceptional students we be able to continue on with the Lab in the Spring 2024 semester.