Scientists mapping deadly radon in Calgary by Michele Jarvie, January 22, 2016, Calgary Herald
It’s silent and it’s deadly. And it may be lurking in your house.
Radon gas is prevalent across the prairies and a Calgary scientist is trying to determine how widespread the risk is in the city.
The preliminary data is concerning.
“One in five (homes) are over the maximum acceptable limit. That’s quite high and very surprising,” said Aaron Goodarzi, an assistant professor at U of C’s Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute. He is spearheading a project to collect data to map the prevalence of the cancer-causing gas. So far, the team has tested 268 homes and aims to have 1,000 homeowners enrolled by the end of January.
Calgary’s early results are even more concerning if measured against U.S. guidelines and those issued by the World Health Organization, which are more stringent.
Health Canada sets an acceptable annual rate of 200 becquerels per cubic metre (200 Bq/m3), while the U.S. rate is 150 and the World Health Organization has proposed recommended levels of 100. The term describes how many radioactive radon particles are decaying every second in every cubic metre of air.
“In Canada, we have a higher limit on what’s acceptable,” said Goodarzi. “I guess Health Canada feels Canadians have a higher tolerance for radon gas.”
Radon is the the second-leading cause of lung cancer in Canada, accounting for about 16 per cent of cases or 1,900 deaths per year. Scientific studies have linked the risk of developing lung cancer to prolonged exposure to high levels of radon gas. A 2009-11 national study of 14,000 homes showed more than 1,500 had unacceptable levels.
Levels have reached as high as 4,000 Bq/m3 in Calgary homes, says Karin Dumais, president of Radon West, which has partnered with Goodarzi to provide test kits to homeowners and the corresponding data to the scientists.
“The highest level we’ve seen was 4,300 in B.C. In Calgary, it was 4,000. They had poured concrete for the basement but not under the furnace so it was sucking air in from under the house. It was basically a radon distribution system.”
A unique aspect of radon is the randomness of it. Dumais said one house she tested had levels of 1,000 Bq/m3 — five times the recommended level. But a measurement 2.5 metres away was only 60.
Dumais got interested in radon when she built a net-zero energy home south of Okotoks and tested it. She was shocked to see such high results in that type of home. She passed the tester around to family and friends — all had levels higher than Canadian guidelines.
“A neighbour had 1,000, my parents were 780 and my sister was at 2,400. Her levels are equal to having 4,320 dental X-rays per year per person. Those are really dangerous levels.”
Yet the threat is relatively unknown to the public.
“It’s been known to the scientific community since the 1970s. But it really does take a local champion to raise the alarm,” said Goodarzi. “In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has taken that step. In Canada, it’s a bit more complicated.”
Because radon is a naturally occurring element from the ground, it falls under provincial jurisdiction. Health Canada cannot mandate testing.
“British Columbia has a lower incidence rate but is way farther ahead than Alberta. Manitoba, with higher rates, is also farther ahead. They have local champions. It needs to get on the radar of the federal government.”
In Health Canada’s national testing, it found the incidence rate in Alberta was 6.6 per cent. But only 23 homes were tested in Calgary, eight in Cochrane and one each in Okotoks and Airdrie.
“That’s why Dr. Goodarzi’s research is so important,” said Dumais. “There isn’t enough data out there to say for certain how big the problem is. If he gets enough data and can bring it to Alberta Health, perhaps it can act on it. We really need to start educating people.”
When Health Canada tested in Castlegar, B.C., it determined 29 per cent of homes there have radon. But when wider testing was done, the incidence rate shot up to 59 per cent.
Dana Schmidt was one of the unlucky ones living with the deadly gas in the West Kootenay city. His previously healthy wife died of lung cancer in 2009 and he went looking for answers. Their house, in which they had lived for 15 years, had radon levels twice the recommended guideline.
He set up the Donna Schmidt Memorial Lung Cancer Prevention Society and sent out radon test kits. Of the thousands of results received, 44 per cent were above the guidelines. One home in the city registered at 600 times the acceptable limit.
“That’s like a lifetime of smoking in five years. It’s higher than a uranium miner would ever experience,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt has a Phd in toxicology and worked in air quality control, but even he was unaware of how bad the problem is. With his society, he is hoping to spread the word and prevent more deaths related to radon exposure.
“Even if we make a 10 per cent difference, that means (people are) saved. People don’t have to go through premature death from lung cancer. When you look at the health costs and the human misery caused, it matters.”
Some groups have lobbied for mandatory testing to be included in all Canadian real estate transactions and Health Canada considered it but abandoned the idea after concerns were raised by the Canadian Real Estate Association. Many states in the U.S. where radon is a problem, such as Montana, do have mandatory testing included in resale home deals.
New homes are also being looked at in terms of legislation. Since December 2014, the B.C. Building Code provisions for the rough-in of a subfloor depressurization system now require installation of a radon vent pipe which extends through, and terminates outside, the building. The Alberta Building Code was also updated as of Nov. 1, 2015, to include radon mitigation.
Modifying a house to lower radon levels is relatively inexpensive, generally in the range of $2,000 to $2,500. It usually involves changing the home’s negative pressure to positive by installing a pipe through the basement floor with a fan attached to draw the radon out.
Dumais said they lobbied the Canada Revenue Agency to get the modifications included as a tax credit but it wasn’t accepted.
“Our biggest message is that it’s fixable and you only know you have it if you test for it,” said Dumais. “It’s cheaper and easier to fix than asbestos but more dangerous.”
Goodarzi’s study aims to have 1,000 homes signed up for testing by Jan. 30 and finish by April. Final, anonymous, results will be ready in the fall. Anyone in the greater Calgary area, including Canmore and Okotoks, wishing to get the $45 test kit can sign up at DNAscience.ca/radon
“We’re hoping to catch as many as we can. (At the institute) we’re getting people coming in every day with lung cancer who have never smoked. It’s primarily because of radon gas.”
Radon is a naturally occurring gas produced from the radioactive decay of uranium in rocks and soil. It is colourless, odourless and tasteless. It is extremely prevalent in the Canadian prairies having been deposited by glaciers. It seeps into homes through cracks in walls, floors and foundations and through floor drains and sumps. Houses in cold climates are at particular risk since windows and doors are kept closed for over half the year and there’s often little air circulation, which creates a vacuum effect. [Emphasis added]
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