Radon in the home is major health risk

Homeowners urged to obtain radon test kits

By Chris Drost

Prolonged concentrated exposure to radon is a leading cause of cancer for people in Ontario and the numbers backing it up are a sobering reminder of the dangers related to the radioactive gas that can go undetected in your home without testing.
If you do not smoke you have a one in 20 chance over your lifetime of getting lung cancer. If you smoke you have a lifetime risk of one in 10 in getting lung cancer but if you both smoke and have radon in your home, you have a one in three risk for lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality in Ontario and among non-smokers, radon is the primary cause of lung cancer, according to the Ontario Agency for Public Health and Promotion. As many as 13.6 per cent of lung cancer deaths in Ontario each year are due to radon exposure, and 16 per cent of those approximate 850 people had never smoked.
The risk of health effects from radon depends on the radon concentration, duration that you are exposed and whether or not you smoke, or are exposed to second-hand smoke.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is found in soil, water and outside air. It is produced by the decay of uranium found in rocks and soil. Because it is a gas, it can move through soil and escape into buildings and into the atmosphere. Because you cannot see it, smell it or taste it, is can only be measured with a radon detector. It can be found anywhere.

Radon can enter a home through such simple things as a crack in the foundation walls or floor slabs, construction joints, gaps around pipes, support posts, window casements, floor drains, sump pumps or cavities in the wall, according to Health Canada. Those living or spending considerable time in the basement of their home may be more at risk.
The final report in a two-year study, the Cross-Canada Survey of Radon Concentrations in Homes in 2012 showed that 6.9 per cent of Canadians are living in homes where the radon levels are above the current radon guideline of 200 bequerels per cubic metre (Bq/m cubed). A bequerel is the unit used to measure the number of radioactive decays of a radon atom. In Ontario, 13 of the 36 health regions had more than 10 per cent of the homes test above the guideline. Radon can be found anywhere in Canada but the areas with the highest risk are in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.
Older homes with stone or exposed soil and cracks in the foundation, are more likely to have radon than more recent homes that have been built since changes to the Ontario Building Code in 2010. The Building Code specifically mentions the Township of Faraday as one of three jurisdictions in Ontario that specifically requires the design and construction of homes to ensure the 200 bequerels per cubic metre threshold is not exceeded.

The only way to know if your home has radon levels exceeding the recommended threshold is to conduct a radon test. These are typically conducted over a three-month period.
According to Public Health Ontario, once radon enters a building it can break down to produce radioactive particles. Once an individual inhales those particles they irritate or irradiate the lining of the lungs. This irradiation damages the lungs and results in the development of cancer. The International Agency for Research and Cancer classifies radon as a carcinogen and recommends that reducing exposure to it will result in fewer cases of lung cancer.
The Cross-Canada Survey of Radon Concentrations in Homes study in 2012 showed very high readings of radon in at least one home in Gooderham, but of the 98 properties surveyed in Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district at that time, 93.9 per cent were under the threshold of 200 bequerels per cubic metre.

Highlands East and areas of North Hastings have a history of uranium mining stemming back to the 1950s, increasing the potential for radon in the area. In fact, according to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the organization that oversees the decommissioning of uranium mines, three of the 14 decommissioned uranium mines in Canada are located on our doorstep, the Bicroft Mine, Dyno Mine and the Madawaska Mine. Both the Dyno and Bicroft sites ceased operation in the early ’60s while the Madawaska Mine has been inactive since 1983. Under the oversight of the CNSC, a company called EWL is looking after the decommissioning of the Dyno and Madawaska Mine sites and Barrick Gold is responsible for the Bicroft site. Ongoing work includes water sampling to ensure the remediation projects are successful and are regulation compliant. Work will continue on an ongoing basis. Most local residents will have seen the work being carried out the past few years along Hwy 28, in the area of the former Madawaska Mine site.
Tailings are the waste produced by grinding the ore and the chemical concentration of uranium. When dried, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission explains that the tailings will have the consistency of fine sand. Waste rock is separated into clean rock and mineralized rock, according to mineral content. Because mineralized waste rock and tailings contain significant concentrations of radioactive elements, primarily radium-226 and thorium-230, they must be managed over the long term.
“We have not done any studies on radon in this area but we did apply for funding to be able to provide free radon kits to residents. Unfortunately, our application was not successful,” said Bernie Mayer, manager of health protection at the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit.
“During Radon Awareness Week in November, we post information on social media about radon. We also have information on our website about where to get a radon testing kit but maybe we will have to make it a little easier to find,” said Mayer.

In nearby Kingston, Frontenac, and Lennox and Addington, a study during the winter of 2018 to 2019 of 1,047 households, revealed that 21 per cent of households participating in the project tested above Health Canada’s guideline of 200 bequerels per cubic metre and 52 per cent tested above the World Health Organization’s radon guideline of 100 bequerels per cubic metre.
In Hastings and Prince Edward Counties, a local radon study, based on the research methods employed by the KFLA study, was conducted in 2019 with many homeowners agreeing to participate in the research. The study provided test kit pick-up locations in Belleville, Trenton, Picton and Bancroft. The test kits were to be placed in the lowest room in the participant’s home and left there for 91 days without being moved or touched. After the end of the 91 days, the test kit was to be mailed directly to an independent company for lab analysis. Those that were found to have radon levels above the recommended threshold were provided with recommendations for lowering the radon level in their homes.
While COVID-19 has slowed the release of the results of the HPEPH study, program manager of healthy environments, Andrew Landy, says that 15.1 per cent of the 519 households participating, had levels of radon in their homes over the 200 bequerels per cubic metre threshold. A total of 45.4 per cent had levels above 100 and .8 had radon levels above 600. For purposes of the study, the rural parts of Hastings Prince Edward, including Bancroft, Tyendinaga and Deseronto combined had a rate of 23.3 per cent of households over the 200 bequerels per cubic metre. Landy suspects that it may not be long before the threshold is lowered to be in line with the World Health Organization’s 100 bequerels per cubic metre threshold. Lowering the threshold would expect to reduce the number of lung cancer deaths associated with chronic exposure to radon.

In Bancroft, the municipality has not conducted a public education campaign about radon testing. “Radon has never been an issue and our public buildings are not tested for it because most do not have basements,” said Pat Hoover, fire chief/CEMC/building and bylaw manager. According to Hoover, most of the issues would be with older buildings that have dirt basements and stone foundations. Everything is sealed up tight with the new building regulations.
There are ways to reduce or eliminate radon in your home should your test results be above the recommended threshold. This remediation is recommended for health reasons and according to the Ontario Real Estate Association, to protect the value of your property. Health Canada says that hiring a certified professional can lower radon levels in the home up to 90 per cent, increasing home ventilation can lower radon levels from 25 to 50 per cent and sealing up cracks can reduce it by 13 per cent. Only 29 per cent of Canadians with high radon in their homes have taken action to reduce it, according to Health Canada.

Radon test kits are available through the local hardware stores or online at www.takeactiononradon.ca The other option is to hire a certified, radon-measurement professional. For more information contact 1-833-723-6600 or radon@hc-sc.gc.ca or visit Canada.ca/radon.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the measurement of radon was bequerels per square metre. It is bequerels per cubic metre (Bq/m cubed).