by Mike Kroll

Yet another challenge will soon be facing the financially beleaguered Knox County Board, one that pits the health and safety of county employees and patrons against the already overextended county budget. The Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety has promised to release the official version of the final report covering radon tests in the Knox County Courthouse before the end of this year. A draft version shows that a number of areas in the Courthouse basement, particularly in the Public Defender's Office, exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ''action level'' for indoor radon exposure. In some cases, the measurements have recorded radon levels two to three times the action level.

While it's a beautiful example of classic architecture, the Knox County Courthouse has numerous problems. The 115-year-old building is too small to comfortably accommodate all its tenants. This lack of space has forced the County to utilize much of the Courthouse basement for offices -- currently the Public Defender, Adult Probation and accounting department of the County Treasurer.

Office use of this basement area is not new and some Knox County employees assigned to these offices are unhappy in their surroundings. Throughout the summer months, the Courthouse basement is damp and has a musty smell due to moisture that seeps through the decidedly non-watertight stone masonry foundation. This moisture is a long standing problem that led some courthouse employees to anonymously file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor back in 1991.

The IDOL conducted an inspection of the Courthouse basement in August 1991 and the inspector's report read: ''The environment in the basement of the courthouse as it existed on the date of the inspection can be characterized as damp, dusty and stale; an environment quite favorable to the proliferation of mold and mildew. Symptoms exhibited by the employees, i.e., headaches, fatigue, and increased incidences of respiratory infections are consistent with exposure to such an environment.''

Mold and mildew is not just an aesthetic or minor health concern. The Illinois Department of Public Health acknowledged ''some people are more sensitive to molds than others.'' Children, the elderly and individuals with other respiratory problems such as asthma are more sensitive to the health effects of mold and mildew. ''Exposure to molds can cause allergic symptoms such as watery eyes, a runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, itching, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, headache and fatigue. When airborn mold spors are present in large numbers they can also cause skin irritation and infections. If you can see or smell mold it needs to be cleaned up.''

At that time the County was ordered to dehumidify the basement areas to a range of 20-60 percent, greatly improve cleaning to reduce significant accumulations of dust and dirt and introduce increased levels of fresh air into the work areas. Part of the remediation of these problems was to include installation of a system of air exchangers in the Courthouse basement. Additionally, it was during one of these inspections that a Courthouse employee first broached the topic of radon levels in the basement.The first official documented radon test was conducted in the fall of 1994. At that time, the air exchangers were not yet in operation. On December 14, 1994, Majorie Walle of the Department of Nuclear Safety reported to Courthouse officials. Her report cautioned: ''It is important to understand that all buildings contain some radon. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the annual average radon level should be less than 4.0 pCi/L (picocuries per liter in air).'' The results of 27 tests ranged from 2.0-5.2 pCi/L. Under ''Interpreting the results'' the report stated ''if your indoor radon test result is 4.0-20 pCi/L follow-up measurement should be performed and reduction of radon levels may be recommended. Radon levels greater than 20.0 pCi/L may indicate a detrimental health risk.''

Less than a year later, the Illinois Department of Public Health was asked to test the basement of the Courthouse for levels of carbon dioxide in the area used by probation officers. Five of the six areas tested exceed measurements of one thousand parts per million of CO2 in the air with a range from 980ppm to 1340ppm. The June 13, 1995 report from IDPH stated: ''In general, as the CO2 in indoor air approaches levels of one thousand parts per million, employee complaints increase. The symptoms reported by the employees in the probation officer area appeared to be consistent with poor indoor air quality. Measured CO2 levels collected on June 6, 1995 appear to support the observation of poor indoor air quality in the probation officer area.''

In 1996 the County Board hired a firm to conduct an evaluation of the Courthouse ventilation system. By the fall of 1996 the air exchangers were finally reported to be operational and noisy. In those areas of the basement they served, this evaluation found ''significantly improved air quality'' with respect to CO2 but areas of the basement without air exchangers still had air quality problems and unwanted noise was now added to the equation. Installation of additional air exchangers was recommended.

On December 10, 1996, the IDOL cited Knox County for three ''serious hazard'' violations of state occupational health and safety regulations. Again the focus was on the Courthouse basement office area and the identified health hazards were expanded to include possible exposure to an asbestos hazard. Exposed water pipes covered with 40-45 year old asbestos insulation and the County's failure to notify employees of the potential exposure accounted for two of the violations. The third covered the long-standing problem of poor housekeeping. The county replaced sections of leaking steel water pipes and abated asbestos ''where necessary'' to complete this work.

In the fall of 1998 the air exchange system serving much of the Courthouse basement office area ceased functioning. On October 30th, Knox County Public Defender Jim Harrell wrote a letter to then-chair of the Knox County Board Jim Baird complaining about the impact of the non functional air exchange system after two months of the system being down. Visible black mold like substances were growing on the ceiling tiles of his office and employees were complaining of consistent coughs, sinus problems and asthma attacks.

In his letter Harrell pointed out that his staff were ''continuously sick with respiratory infections'' and that even when operational the air exchangers did not ''adequately keep mold and mildew from growing in this office.'' Harrell's letter stated: ''There have been several miscarriages from employees in the basement over the last few years and I have one employee who is currently pregnant with concerns regarding this situation. We all expect to have at least one bad respiratory infection each year.''

Harrell said in his letter to Baird: ''if the condition is not remedied within the next ten working days, I, as an employer, will be forced to contact the OSCHEA and the Illinois Department of Public Health.'' On November 10th, Harrell did just that. Sometimes the regulatory wheels move very slowly indeed. On March 5, 2001 the IDOL conducted a safety inspection of the Knox County Courthouse.

A list of six violations, five classified as ''serious hazards,'' was itemized in a report to Knox County Sheriff Jim Thompson on March 13th. The first three violations concerned ongoing issues regarding the continuing presence of decaying asbestos pipe insulation. The fourth addressed ''fungus and black mold forming on the piping and walls from excessive condensation'' within the Public Defender's office area as well as ''pungent odors off-gassing from the fungus and molds.'' The final two concerned improper electrical wiring and the absence of safety guards surrounding exposed belts and pulleys on a compressor.

Thompson responded to IDOL reporting that the last two issues were corrected almost immediately. ''In reference to the asbestos, there has been no work performed by our maintenance personnel but rather the work crew involved in that was hired by the administrative Judge at the time which was Judge Mathers. He stated Šthat he has no records of the work plan generated by the company hired by the Judges Division to perform the work, which took place approximately three to four years ago.'' Curiously, no action was reported with respect to the mold and mildew issues other than to suggest that perhaps the dampness was caused by an employee of the Public Defender's office spilling water collected from a dehumidifier -- a dehumidifier that was brought into that office area by Harrell's frustrated staff and not provided by the county.

This past April a stymied Harrell wrote to the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety requesting a follow-up test of the Courthouse basement area for radon. In March, an unidentified employee who works in the courthouse basement used a residential radon test kit obtained from the Knox County Health Department. The results from that test showed a very high radon level of 21.1 pCi/L over a four-day test period. IDNS did not act promptly enough for Harrell and on June 14th he wrote another letter in which he characterized himself as ''alarmed'' and ''quite concerned'' that radon testing was not conducted immediately.

As of the June letter, Harrell reported that the air exchange system in the Courthouse basement ''has been inoperable for a year or longer to the best of my knowledge. Eventually, two sets of radon tests were conducted this past summer. The first took place on August 6-8th and the second August 28-30th. Between these two tests the air exchange system in the Courthouse basement was reportedly repaired. Marjorie Walle, manager of IDNS's radon program, prepared a draft report of the findings of these two tests.

The measured levels of radon actually increased in general after the air exchange system was repaired. Almost all areas that were tested in both test periods showed higher levels of radon gas present in the air during the second one. The lowest measured radon in the Public Defender's office area during the second test period exceeded the EPA 4.0 pCi/L ''action level'' with a reading of 4.5 pCi/L and one office was 11.2 pCi/L. Overall, nearly all of the Public Defender's office area exceeded the EPA action level. Two rooms in the County Treasurer's office recorded results of 4.2 and 6.8 pCi/L while a third was only 0.6 pCi/L. Most of the office areas used by Probation also recorded radon levels exceeding the EPA ''action level'' with a high reading of 6.6 pCi/L and an average of about 5 pCi/L.

Interpreting the implications of these results is hardly simple. According to Greg Chance, Knox County Health Department administrator, the EPA ''action level'' is somewhat of an arbitrary standard. ''We know that radon is a significant health risk, second only to smoking as the cause of lung cancer in the U.S., but we don't have sufficient research results to develop exact standards. If repeated tests show radon levels exceeding 4.0 pCi/L, there is cause for a health concern and the higher the level the greater the risk to your health. Radon is naturally occurring and we are exposed to it daily in low levels; the cause for concern is prolonged exposure to higher levels that can have a cumulative effect on your health.''

The options open to county officials are few. While a properly functioning air exchange system coupled with controlled humidity would probably address many other air quality issues in the Courthouse basement, it is unlikely to correct for the excessive levels of radon. Sealing the porous basement walls is cost prohibitive and installation of external mitigation systems is likewise beyond the county's means.

Ultimately, the only practical solution will probably be to remove the offices from the Courthouse basement. That solution begs the question, in office-space starved Knox County government, where can these offices be moved?


According to the U.S. EPA ''radon is a cancer-causing, radioactive gas. You can't see radon and you can't smell or taste it. The Surgeon General has warned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States today. Only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths. If you smoke and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is especially high.''

Radon is naturally occurring gas that results from the radioactive decay of radium. As a radioactive element radon gas is measure in picocuries per liter of air, so named to honor pioneering French physicist Marie Curie. The originating source for radon gas is the naturally occurring mineral uranium that can be found throughout the United States. Radon gas rises through porous soil, sand and rock until it reaches air in the atmosphere. It gets into buildings through openings in the foundation. The more porous the building's foundation, the greater the risk of radon entering, and the highest concentrations are typically found in the lowest levels of the structure.The U.S. Geological Survey reports ''All house foundations have openings such as cracks, utility entries, seams between foundation materials, and uncovered soil in crawl spaces and basements. Most houses draw less than one percent of their indoor air from the soil; the remainder comes from outdoor air, which is generally quite low in radon. Houses with low indoor air pressures, poorly sealed foundations, and several entry points for soil air, however, may draw as much as 20 percent of their indoor air from the soil. Even if the soil air has only moderate levels of radon, levels inside the house may be very high.''

The Knox County Health Department warns that radon risk in this area is considered high. A study by the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety found that 63 percent of homes tested in Knox County had indoor radon levels measured higher than 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The Health Department encourages homeowners to test their homes for radon and makes test kits available for a fee of $4. This includes the cost of analysis and a written report.

Administrator Greg Chance recommends that homes with measured radon beyond 4.0 pCi/L conduct followup testing before considering remediation but the problem should be addressed if repeated tests exceed the action level. The higher the measured radon in your home the more of a health risk you are exposed to if no action is taken. Radon mitigation systems can be retrofitted to most homes at a cost of between $800 and $2,500 -- according to Chance. If you are concerned about radon levels in your home or would like additional information contact the Knox County Health Department at 344-2224.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 8, 2001

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