When we think of a tasteless, odourless, invisible killer potentially lurking in our homes, carbon monoxide (CO) immediately comes to mind. What’s beyond our radar, however, is radon. In Canada, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, next to smoking, and the number one cause of cancer in non-smokers.
While carbon monoxide poisonings kill 300 people in Canada each year and 200 more are hospitalized, deaths from radon-induced lung cancer top 3,200. That’s eight per day.
“The problem is fixable and totally preventable,” says Dr. Aaron Goodarzi, Canada Research Chair for Radiation Exposure Disease and University of Calgary professor.
But people can’t be complacent.
Radon is everywhere. According to Health Canada, it’s a naturally occurring radioactive gas created as uranium found in soil and rock decays. When released from the ground into the open air, it becomes diluted and relatively harmless. However, when it seeps its way into enclosed spaces like our homes, it accumulates at high levels and exposes us to serious health risks as we breathe in that air.
It’s in old homes and new homes alike. It sneaks in through openings like floor drains and sump pumps, foundation and floor cracks, and tiny gaps around pipes and enters the home because of the differences in indoor and outdoor air pressure.
As we breathe in radon gas, we’re also absorbing the radioactive particles it’s releasing into our lung tissue, damaging the lung’s cells.
“Particle radiation from radon hits the cells of our lungs and deposits its energy there,” says, Goodarzi. “It reacts with our DNA and essentially breaks it apart. When our bodies try to heal it, it can cause genetic mutations that could cause lung cancer.”
“Your lung tissue is completely vulnerable,” says Kelley Bush, manager of the National Radon Outreach and Engage Program for Health Canada. “With almost a four-day half-life, it sticks around for a while releasing this radiation and energy.”
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And if the levels are high enough over a long period, the risks go even higher, and it can stay in our bodies for five to 25 years until cancer shows up.
And like any case of lung cancer, there are no symptoms until it shows up at a deadlier stage. Bush says that, often, if caught in the early stages, it’s because another health issue was being scanned or tested for.
Kerri Tucker, a Saskatoon real estate agent and mother of three, was diagnosed with stage two radon-induced lung cancer in 2019 when she was 41.
“I was shocked. I never smoked a day in my life,” says Tucker.
The chain of events started with a chronic cough thought to be allergy-related, then pneumonia, which led to an eventual CT scan that revealed a lobe in her right lung which required surgery and chemotherapy. She suspects her childhood home was the primary source of radon.
Tucker’s story has a happy ending. She’s now cancer-free. She’s also become a radon ambassador for the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, advocating for radon testing.
Testing for radon is a relatively straightforward process. It typically requires placing a device at the lowest level of your home for at least 90 days.
A certified mitigating professional can test for radon levels in your home, or you can do it yourself with a detection system like Wave Plus by Airthings. Wave Plus is a smart indoor air quality plus radon detector that looks and installs just as easily as a typical smoke detector. A more common and low-cost option is to purchase an alpha tracker radon test kit. It’s a one-time-use unit, often resembling a small hockey puck or pill bottle. After 90 days, you send it off to a lab for analysis – sometimes in a prepaid envelope – with results usually arriving in a few weeks.
In Canada, the guideline for what’s considered low risk for indoor air is 200 becquerels per cubic metre (200Bq/m3). One becquerel equals one radon atom disintegration or the emission of radiation per second.
“While the risk is lower at lower levels, with radon, there is truly no safe level,” says Health Canada’s Bush. If your readings are 200-600 Bq/m3, mitigate within two years; above 600Bq/m3, mitigate within one year. Mitigation can usually be done within a day.
Don’t hit the panic button just yet. Unlike deadly carbon monoxide or fumes from a fire that attack quickly, radon is only hazardous over time.
Still, don’t wait too long. Goodarzi’s research at EvictRadon.org shows the Canadian Prairies are home to the second-highest radon levels in the world, next to Poland. It’s vital that you test and reduce your amount of exposure.
Testing can be done any time, although it’s typically recommended during the winter months when the indoor air is warmer and pulls the radon in and windows are closed. But because we keep our windows closed even during the summer due to fumes from fires and with the use of air conditioning, Goodarzi says studies have shown that exposure in homes has become increasingly uniform throughout the year.
Bush is adamant that the risk is higher or equivalent to all accidental deaths – such as fire, poisoning, car crashes and drowning – combined.
“If you are changing the batteries in your smoke detector, if you are putting a lifejacket on your child when you get into a boat or your seatbelt on when you get into your car,” says Bush, “then why would you not test your home for radon?”
November is National Radon Action Month in Canada and the perfect time to get your home tested. Visit TakeAction on Radon or EvictRadon.org. And check out the Tackle Radon.ca campaign, a partnership of the Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba lung associations to spread the message about the importance of radon testing and stories from CFL greats.
Greg Gazin, also known as the Gadget Guy and Gadget Greg, is a syndicated veteran tech columnist, communication, leadership and technology speaker, facilitator, blogger, podcaster and author. Reach him at @gadgetgreg or GadgetGuy.ca.
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