Radon gas an invisible cancer-causing reality
Jim Pissot has experienced the heartbreak of cancer in his family – and the prominent Bow Valley resident is on a mission to raise awareness about cancer-causing radon gas.
Radon is an invisible, odourless gas that can seep into your home or office through cracks in the floor, walls and foundations, and there’s ongoing scientific study showing there’s a health risk with long-term exposure.
Radon exposure is linked to roughly 10 per cent of lung cancers in Canada, and is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, according to the Canadian Lung Association.
“My concern is we’re worried about the cougar that comes through town, we’re worried about the odd drunk driver, but this is a creeping thing with long-term health affects,” said Pissot, whose brother-in-law is battling cancer.
“Testing for radon is something everyone should be doing. Radon is something that can easily be mitigated and it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar screen at the moment.”
Radon gas comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water, and escapes from the ground into the air outside. When radon mixes with air outside, it’s not considered a problem because the air dilutes the amount of radon, but it can be harmful when in enclosed spaces.
It can seep into cracks and openings in homes, especially on the lower floor, basement or crawl spaces. It can get in through unfinished floors, pipes, windows, sump pumps and cracks in the basement floor or foundation.
“Radon gas can become trapped inside and you and your family can breathe in high levels of radon without knowing it,” according to a statement on the Canadian Lung Association’s website.
While the dangers of radon might not be on the radar of most Bow Valley residents just yet, Parks Canada has conducted radon testing in all of its buildings and staff accommodation housing in Banff National Park.
Banff National Park was selected by Health Canada as a pilot test site for a national radon testing initiative in 2010 and delivered the results to Parks Canada last year.
Six of the 82 locations tested were found to have radon levels above acceptable levels and, depending on the readings, required mitigation in one to two years to lower the readings to acceptable levels.
Three of the six buildings had readings over 600 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3), while three others had readings ranging between 200 and 600 becquerels per cubic metre.
Health Canada’s radon guidelines say buildings with readings over 600 Bq/m3 should be repaired within one year, and buildings with readings between 200 and 600 Bq/m3 should be repaired within two years. Readings below 200 Bq/m3 do not require action.
Parks Canada officials say the levels of naturally-occurring radon in Parks Canada’s public facilities or outdoor areas in Banff National Park does not pose a threat to visitors or staff.
“It’s long-term exposure and the level of the radon that’s in a facility that combine to make a risk. When they say long-term exposure they talk about decades,” said John Rose, Parks Canada’s asset manager.
“There’s no need to panic or to move employees out. Health Canada has been very supportive, and we set up info sessions for all of our staff right away when this was known.”
Rose said the three highest readings included the operations facility in the Parks Canada compound, the basement of a staff housing accommodation and the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
He said the three other buildings with readings between 200 and 600 Bq/m3 included the paint shop in the operation’s compound, the Upper Hot Springs, and a staff housing site on Glen Avenue, known as the old fish hatchery.
While each site is dealt with according to the unique characteristics of the site, generally mitigation measures involve increased ventilation and sealing of any cracks or openings in the foundation, walls and basement floors.
Rose said Parks Canada tackled the worst first, while the remaining remediation work is due to be done this year.
He said radon is known to be naturally associated with the thermal springs on Sulphur Mountain, noting mitigation measures are part of the Cave and Basin National Historic site $13 million renewal project.
“We’re in the process of a multimillion-dollar renovation revitalization project to do with the Cave and Basin and the contractor doing that work will be implementing the mitigation there,” he said.
“The highest reading is at the entrance of where you go into the cave and that’s typically naturally occurring.”
Meanwhile, the federal government says the only way to know if you have a radon problem in your home is to test for it – either by using a do-it-yourself kit or hiring a professional radon measurement contractor.
Pissot had his Canmore home tested last year for radon levels and they had the mitigation work completed in mid-February this year. It usually costs between $500 and $3,000 to repair a home to block radon.
His basement recorded an initial reading of 310 Bq/m3 – above the federal government’s accepted safety threshold. He’s waiting on the final three-month results since the repair work has been done.
“The contrast for me was the horror of having cancer-causing radon gas in our house, but the other side of the story is it was relatively easy to address and get rid of,” said Pissot.
“When you look at what it costs to have this work done, and given that we have had experience with cancer in our family, this is not a great cost at all.”
Radon gas can be found all over Canada, but there are places that have less and others that tend to have much more, such as along the Canadian Shield.
With Miette Group gritstone – sediment eroded from the Canadian Shield – present in the Bow Valley, Pissot questions if certain geological structures may make homes here more susceptible to the invasion by radon gas.
But he said people can’t know if there is unacceptable levels of radon gas in their home unless they test for it.
“What’s challenging about this is if you have radon in your house you’re probably not going to notice the negative effect for years because it’s cumulative,” said Pissot.
“But we live in environment where the food we eat or don’t eat, the places where we work and play, and our stressful culture are all possible contributors to cancer, so why don’t we take control of the ones we can control?”
In 2010, new national building codes were introduced to protect against radon. These new codes require new homes to have a vapour barrier to reduce the entry of radon.
They also require a ‘rough-in’ for a radon reduction system. The rough-in will significantly lower costs if action has to be taken later to reduce radon levels in the home.
In raising awareness about radon, Pissot said he also hopes municipalities in the Bow Valley will get on board and determine which neighborhoods may be more susceptible and put people most at risk in the Bow Valley.
“Firstly, they should test those homes, and secondly, they should insist new homes have mitigations built in,” he said.
For more information on radon, go to Health Canada’s website at www.healthcanada.gc.ca/radon
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