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Your Environment. Your Health.

High School Students Become Citizen Scientists to Reduce Radon Exposure

When it comes to building community capacity for reducing environmental risks, a new approach of engaging high school students as citizen scientists shows promising results. After residents in both Ohio and Kentucky expressed concern about radon exposure and its link to lung cancer, researchers with the community engagement cores (CEC) at the University of Kentucky (UK) and the University of Cincinnati (UC) teamed up with two high schools and took action on home radon testing. The project was both feasible and effective, with high rates of returned test kits and valid results.

As the researchers were setting up the study, they formed ideas to maximize community benefits. First, they knew testing rates increase when citizen scientists are engaged in the research. Additionally, the researchers wanted to involve students to promote youth empowerment and enhance relationships between their academic institutions and the community. The researchers worked with teachers who had community-academic research experience and who were active in their communities. Together, the researchers and teachers developed a plan to address radon exposure using a citizen science approach with high school students. The study, High School Students as Citizen Scientists to Decrease Radon Exposure, reports on their approach.

“Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer, but in most Appalachian communities, less than 1% of homeowners test for radon,” said Ellen Hahn, Ph.D., R.N., who conceptualized the study and directs the UK Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES). “We know the power of citizen science to engage the public in research and to prompt action. By giving high school students a meaningful and central role in real-life research, we wanted to see if they could become effective citizen scientists and champions for home radon testing.”

Students first learned about the project in their science classrooms. The researchers and teachers taught students at one rural Appalachia school and one suburban Ohio school about human subject protection principles and the basics of radon exposure. After the first session, students were free to join the project as citizen scientists as long as they had parental consent and agreed to other project requirements. The citizen scientists then received further education on radon testing and mitigation, the health effects of radon, evaluating radon data, and how to consent a parent or other adult to test the home for radon.

Wilmhoff with the three high school students in front of poster

Craig Wilmhoff, a high school teacher involved in the radon project, stands with students Autumn Gwin, Raegan Simpson, and Haley Hurd from Perry County Central High School in Hazard, Kentucky, at Appalachian Research Day. (Photo courtesy of Craig Wilmhoff)

For each participating household, students administered home radon tests and a parent or other adult completed a survey. Later, students reported household-specific results back to the adult. Students also presented their findings to the community. Furthermore, the researchers offered financial and other radon mitigation resources to households with high indoor radon.

“It was promising that over two-thirds of the participants returned the test kits. The rate of return is typically much lower with more traditional approaches,” said Hahn. “Our results pave the way for sustainable and authentic youth engagement by using citizen science approaches to tackle an important environmental health concern.”

A Unique Collaboration Between Two Community Engagement Cores

Before teaming up for the radon project, UK-CARES’ CEC and UC’s CEC had worked together on two citizen science projects to test water and air quality with adults and youth, and the radon project built on their past collaborations. Even with this strong history of partnership, each CEC brought unique strengths to the radon project.

The UC’s CEC built on its prior experience deploying citizen science water testing toolkits. These toolkits, which include instructions and devices for measuring pH and dissolved solids, allow community members to analyze local water quality. By providing these kits, the CEC empowers communities to collect data and enact local change around environmental health issues. Additionally, although the radon study was the first time students were engaged to increase radon testing rates, UC's CEC has regular youth engagement activities. For example, the CEC partners annually with a local museum to connect environmental health graduate students with grade school youth to educate them on the health implications of environmental exposures. Both the graduate students and grade schoolers benefit from these events: the graduate students gain real-world experience in youth engagement and communication, while the youth are empowered to make decisions that reflect positive environmental health outcomes.

UK, through its Bridging Research Efforts and Advocacy Toward Healthy Environments (BREATHE) program, brought expertise in addressing radon exposure as a public health issue. Researchers, led by Hahn, tested the effectiveness of a personalized environmental report back intervention to reduce co-exposures to radon and tobacco smoke in the home. Recently, BREATHE researchers partnered with the Kentucky Geological Survey to create a novel comic book, “Invisible Enemy: The Rise of Radon,” which focuses on NIEHS-funded radon research.

The strong relationship between the two universities allowed researchers to access more resources than they had at either institution alone, and this cross-institutional approach helped the feasibility project’s success.

Two Benefits for the Price of One: Increasing Radon Testing and Student Environmental Health Literacy

While radon exposure accounts for 10-15% of lung cancer cases, U.S. radon testing rates are low. Citizen science approaches have been shown to increase testing rates, and Hahn is hopeful that the feasibility project is just the beginning of a sustained and effective effort to increase radon testing.

“Bringing citizen science to high school science classrooms was a feasible approach to increase testing rates in communities where residents had expressed concern about environmental exposures and lung cancer,” said Hahn. “But we need more research on the impact of integrating citizen science projects into the school curricula on environmental health literacy and on testing and remediation behaviors.”

Because radon is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, it is an invisible enemy, so raising awareness can be tricky. Citizen science is a promising approach to increase a community’s understanding of radon and to prompt action. Hahn attributes part of the project’s success to the teachers’ leadership and enthusiasm, the students’ eager participation in the classroom sessions, and the students’ active and meaningful engagement and interest in the research.

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