Pointing to startling statistics on lung cancer risks, child health and other experts in Canada are ramping up calls for families nationwide to test their homes for radon gas contamination.
Radon is a gas that comes from uranium in the ground. It can enter homes through cracks and gaps in the foundation and build up to harmful levels in indoor air.
On average, 1 in 15 Canadian homes (up to 1 in 5 in some provinces) have a high level of radon gas in the air. And at least one in 20 people living long-term in such a home can expect to develop lung cancer, even if they've never smoked tobacco.
Odds of lung cancer for a smoker living long-term in a high radon-contaminated house is 1 in 3.
"This is a national concern for the long-term health and well-being of our children that hasn't had the kind of attention it deserves," says Erica Phipps, Executive Director of the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment (CPCHE).
"Parents all know about the need to maintain a smoke detector and install a carbon monoxide monitor. But there's a third-point on the fundamental safe home checklist: Conduct a long-term (three months or longer) do-it-yourself radon test during the colder months when windows and doors are mostly closed, or hire a radon specialist to measure the radon level."
Partners with CPCHE in the new radon awareness campaign are Health Canada, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Canadian Lung Association, and Parachute, a national charitable organization devoted to preventing injuries and saving lives.
"The dangers associated with house fires, CO poisoning and radon exposure are high but the preventive measures are relatively simple," says J.P. Cody-Cox, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. "We're encouraging parents to devote a couple of hours on a Saturday morning to getting these three items checked off the list - for their kids' sake."
Radon awareness, testing and child care
In Quebec, schools and child care facilities are required to test for radon.
CPCHE and the Canadian Child Care Federation are conducting a vanguard initiative to promote radon awareness and testing throughout the Canadian child care sector.
A small group of child care facilities in Winnipeg has been recruited to promote radon awareness and home testing among client families. They will also test their facilities for radon.
"Our sector is all about caring for kids. When I first learned about the health risks of radon exposure, I knew we needed to take action," says Don Giesbrecht, CEO of the Canadian Child Care Federation. "Child care professionals interact with young families every day. We're well-positioned to help make sure families are aware of radon and know how to test their homes. We can also safeguard kids by making sure they are not exposed to elevated radon during the hours they spend at the child care centre."
Radon is a radioactive gas formed by the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and groundwater. The odourless gas seeps into homes through cracks and other openings in the foundation and can build up to harmful levels in indoor air. The radioactive particles can be breathed into the lungs, where they damage cells and potentially lead to lung cancer.
In enclosed spaces, radon gas can accumulate into a health risk: exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer after tobacco smoking, accounting for 16 per cent of lung cancer deaths, says Health Canada.
"As radon breaks down, it forms radioactive particles that can get lodged into your lung tissue as you breathe. The radioactive particles then release energy that can damage your lung cells. When lung cells are damaged, they have the potential to result in cancer. Not everyone exposed to radon will develop lung cancer, and the time between exposure and the onset of the disease can take many years."
"If you smoke or have smoked and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is especially high," Health Canada says.
Canada's guideline for acceptable radon levels was lowered in 2007 from 800 to 200 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3). This falls within the World Health Organization's recommended range of 100-300 Bq/m3. Higher levels within this range are considered acceptable if the ideal of 100 Bq/m3 cannot be achieved due to country-specific conditions.
An Ontario study last year attributed 847 -- some 13.6 % -- of annual lung cancer deaths in the province to radon, adding that if all homes with readings above 200 Bq/m3 were remediated, 91 lung cancer deaths could be prevented each year; 233 could be avoided if remediation was performed at 100 Bq/m3.
Radon levels may vary from home to home depending on conditions of soil and the home's foundation, construction type, weather and air circulation.
"Because there are so many factors, it is not possible to predict the radon level in a home. The only way to know for sure is to test," says Barbara Mackinnon, a radon spokesperson for the Canadian Lung Association. "Radon is a major cause of lung cancer yet many people are not familiar with the risks or what to do. We're working in communities across Canada to raise awareness and facilitate access to test kits." To find out where you can purchase a low-cost radon test kit online, visit the Take Action on Radon website.
According to Health Canada, radon levels in most homes can be reduced by more than 80% for about the same cost as replacing a furnace, air conditioner or other common home repairs: on average $1,500 to $3,000 to seal a foundation, for example, or for a system to suction the gas away.
CPCHE's Phipps notes that making radon testing and remediation accessible to all families, including low-income tenants, is an unmet challenge. "As a society, we need to find ways to ensure all housing in Canada is free from elevated radon. This is important for reasons of equity. It is also a smart investment in the prevention of lung cancer, a costly and devastating disease."
Concentrations differ but radon is found Canada-wide -- usually higher in areas with more uranium in underlying rock and soil.
A nation-wide Health Canada survey, involving almost 14,000 homes in 2009-2011, showed 6.9% had radon levels above the 200 Bq/m3 guideline.
The highest proportion of problem homes were those in New Brunswick and Manitoba, where more than 1 in 5 showed radon levels above 200 Bq/m3.
(From the Cross-Canada Survey, available in full at http://bit.
Visit the campaign webpage via this link: http://www.
- The Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment (CPCHE) is a multi-sectoral collaboration of organizations with expertise in issues related to children, health, public health and the environment. CPCHE partners have been working together since 2001 to protect children's health from environmental pollutants and toxic chemicals by moving children's environmental health issues into the minds of decision-makers, service-provider organizations, individual practitioners, parents and the public. http://www.
- Health Canada is the Federal department responsible for helping Canadians maintain and improve their health, while respecting individual choices and circumstances.
- The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) is the national public service association dedicated to reducing the loss of life and property from fire, and advancing the science and technology of the Fire and Emergency Service in Canada. CAFC is an in-dependent, non-profit organization with a voluntary membership, founded in 1909. http://www.
- The Canadian Lung Association is a non-profit and volunteer-based health charity dedicated to its mission of promoting and improving lung health for all Canadians. The Lung Association works at the national, provincial and community levels to improve and promote lung health. http://www.
- Parachute is a Canadian charitable organization dedicated to preventing injuries and saving lives. Parachute, established in 2012, unites the former organizations of Safe Communities Canada, Safe Kids Canada, SMARTRISK and ThinkFirst Canada into one leader in injury prevention. Parachute's injury prevention solutions, knowledge mobilization, public policy, and social awareness efforts are designed to help Canadians reduce their risks of injury while achieving Parachute's vision of an injury-free Canada where Canadians enjoy long lives lived to the fullest. http://www.
What is radon?
Radon is a radioactive gas that is produced naturally from the gradual breakdown of uranium in rock and soil. Radon gas can move into homes and other buildings through cracks in the walls or floor of foundations, or through gaps around service pipes, window casements, floor drains, sumps and other openings. Soil gas infiltration is the most important source of radon in indoor environments. Other lesser sources can include well water and certain building materials.
You can't see, taste or smell radon. The only way to know the level of radon in a home or other building is to test for it. Do-it-yourself test kits are available at most hardware and home improvement stores and online. Testing can also be done by a radon measurement professional.
Health Canada has established a guideline of 200 Becquerels per cubic metre (200 Bq/m3) for radon in indoor air in dwellings. A Becquerel is a measurement of radioactive decay. The World Health Organization guideline is a range from 100- 300 Bq/m3, with higher levels in the range considered acceptable if the ideal of 100 Bq/m3 cannot be met due to country-specific conditions.
What are the health risks of radon exposure?
Being exposed to high levels of radon in indoor air increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
Long-term exposure to elevated radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, and it is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.
According to Health Canada, radon causes 16 percent of lung cancer deaths in Canada.
The risk of cancer depends on the level of radon and how long a person is exposed to those levels.
Exposure to cigarette smoke combined with high radon levels significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer. A person who has had long-term exposure to high radon levels has a 1 in 20 chance of developing lung cancer. When long-term exposure to elevated radon occurs together with exposure to cigarette smoke, the risk of developing lung cancer increases to 1 in 3.
Lung cancer is a deadly disease. It is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women, and accounts for more than a quarter of all cancer mortality. Approximately 8 out of 10 people with lung cancer will die from it. On average, 70 Canadians are diagnosed with lung cancer every day, and each day, on average, 55 die from it. Lung cancer is rare in children. However, the effects of exposure to carcinogenic substances, such as tobacco smoke and radon, are cumulative - the longer a person is exposed, the greater their risk. Thus, preventing radon exposures during in childhood will reduce lifetime risk.
Research from Health Canada points to the importance of preventing childhood exposures to radon. A child exposed for just two years to radon concentrations of 8,000 Bq/m3 has the same risk of developing lung cancer as a person who has lived a lifetime in a home with radon concentrations of slightly above 200 Bq/m3.
Where is radon found in Canada?
Radon is found across Canada. Concentrations differ, but are usually higher in areas with more uranium in the underlying rock and soil. Health Canada conducted a Cross-Canada Survey of Radon Concentrations in Homes in 2009-2011, testing radon levels in a sample of nearly 14,000 homes. The results from this two-year study indicate that 6.9% of Canadians are living in homes with radon levels above the current radon guideline of 200 Bq/m3.
While the cross-Canada survey cannot be used to predict radon levels in an individual home or neighborhood, the results show that some jurisdictions have higher prevalence of homes likely to fall above the Health Canada guideline. In New Brunswick and Manitoba, for example, more than one in 5 homes is estimated to have radon levels above 200 Bq/m3. (The full report of the Cross-Canada Survey is available at: http://www.
Radon concentrations will vary from one house to another, even if they are similar and next door to each other. The amount of radon in a home will depend on many factors including:
- Soil characteristics: Radon concentrations can vary enormously depending on the uranium content of the soil. As well, radon flows more easily through some soils than others, for example sand versus clay.
- Construction type: The type of home and its design affect the amount of contact with the soil and the number and size of entry points for radon.
- Foundation condition: Foundations with numerous cracks and openings have more potential entry points for radon.
- Occupant lifestyle: The use of exhaust fans, windows and fireplaces, for example, influences the pressure difference between the house and the soil. This pressure difference can draw radon indoors and influences the rate of exchange of outdoor and indoor air.
- Weather: Variations in weather (e.g., temperature, wind, barometric pressure, precipitation, etc.) can affect the amount of radon that enters a home.
Because there are so many factors, it is not possible to predict the radon level in a home; the only way to know for sure is to test.
How to determine the radon level in a building, and what should be done if elevated levels are found
Residents can test their homes for radon using a do-it-yourself test kits, available from many hardware and home building supply retailers, or online. A long-term test (minimum of 3 months) conducted during the winter season when windows and doors mostly closed is recommended. The test involves placing a small passive sampler on the lowest occupied level of the home or building and leaving it undisturbed for a minimum of three months. The unit should be placed on a secure surface (e.g., bookshelf or table) located away from heating or A/C vents, windows or doors. At end of the test period, the test unit should be sealed into the envelope provided and mailed to the laboratory for processing. Results are typically returned by mail or email within a few weeks.
If the radon level is above the Health Canada guideline of 200 Bq/m3, action should be taken to lower the radon concentration. If the levels are between 200 - 600 Bq/m3, Health Canada recommends taking action within two years to reduce the radon levels. If the levels are 600 Bq/m3 or higher, mitigation should be done within a year.
There are several ways to reduce radon levels in a home or building: installing a radon mitigation system, sealing up cracks and gaps in the foundation and/or increasing ventilation.
In most cases, installing a radon mitigation system will be the most effective means of bringing radon levels down to an acceptable level. Sub-slab depressurization (also called active soil depressurization) is the most effective and reliable radon reduction technique. This method involves installing a pipe through the foundation floor slab to the exterior of the building (either the roof or an outside wall) and attaching a fan that runs continuously to draw the radon gas from below the home and into the outdoors where it is quickly diluted.
A certified radon mitigation contractor should be used to conduct a radon mitigation. To find a certified mitigator, contact the Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program (C-NRPP) at 1-800-269-4174, the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (CARST) at firstname.lastname@example.org or Health Canada at email@example.com.
It is important to retest the radon levels after the mitigation to be sure the levels have dropped below the guideline.
Comprehensive guidance on radon testing and remediation can be found in the new Health Canada publication Radon - Reduction Guide for Canadians available at http://www.
At present, homeowners and landlords in Canada are not legally required to test for radon or to remediate if high levels of radon are found.
2. Smoke detectors
On average, 19 children aged 14 and under are killed by fire or smoke each year in Canada. Nearly 600 are hospitalized. Installing and maintaining smoke detectors (also referred to as smoke alarms) in the home are a proven way to prevent injuries and death from fires.
Experts advise installing at least one smoke detector on every storey of your home (including the basement) and outside each sleeping area. Detectors should also be installed in bedrooms if occupants sleep with bedroom doors closed. Because smoke rises, smoke detectors should be mounted on ceilings or high on walls. Smoke detectors mounted on the ceiling should be at least 4 inches away from the wall. Units mounted on walls should be no more than a 12 inches from the ceiling. It is important that smoke detectors be located away from doors, windows, ducts or vents that might interfere with the units' ability to detect smoke.
There are two types of smoke detectors. Choosing the right type of detector for each location in the home will help prevent nuisance alarms - a major contributor to the disabling and resulting ineffectiveness of smoke detectors. Ionization smoke detectors should be used in general living and sleeping areas. Ionization smoke detectors respond quickly to fast flaming fires, which generate a lot of heat but not necessarily a lot of smoke. Photoelectric smoke detectors are recommended for the kitchen area because they are less prone to nuisance alarms caused by cooking (e.g., burnt toast) or humidity (cooking or shower steam). Photoelectric detectors respond quickly to smouldering fires that produce a lot of smoke with less heat. See more at: http://www.
3. Carbon Monoxide detectors
Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas that reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. Low levels over long periods of time are dangerous, and high levels can cause unconsciousness and even death. Sources of carbon monoxide in the home include fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, fireplaces, gas stoves and water heaters (especially those that are not properly vented or maintained); idling vehicles in attached garages; barbecues, grills, space heaters and other non-vented fuel-burning appliances that are designed for outdoor use; and tobacco smoke.
Carbon monoxide is a leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in Canada. An estimated 414 Canadians died of carbon monoxide poisoning between 2000 and 2007.
Installing a carbon monoxide alarm on each level of a home and outside every sleeping area is key to protecting lives and making homes safer. Without a carbon monoxide detector, it is impossible to detect the presence of this dangerous gas, in any concentration, because it is colourless, odourless and tasteless. Symptoms of exposure, such as headaches and nausea, are often mistaken for the flu and either ignored or misdiagnosed.
Two jurisdictions in Canada now require carbon monoxide detectors in all residences. Ontario and the Yukon both passed legislation in 2013. In both provinces, legislation requires the mandatory installation of carbon monoxide alarms in all homes that contain a garage or a fuel-burning device, such as a furnace or fireplace.