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Silent, but Deadly

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Silent, but Deadly

Canada’s new guideline for radon gas exposure could save hundreds of lives each year–if we act now. This radioactive gas is a quiet killer because it can enter our homes unnoticed; it’s colourless and odourless. It’s also the second-leading cause of lung cancer in Canadians after tobacco.

Canada’s new guideline for radon gas exposure could save hundreds of lives each year–if we act now. This radioactive gas is a quiet killer because it can enter our homes unnoticed; it’s colourless and odourless. It’s also the second-leading cause of lung cancer in Canadians after tobacco.

Most of us have probably never heard of radon gas, but according to a 2006 report from the Radon Working Group on new guidelines for Canada, “in any other situation, this number of deaths would certainly justify a major public health initiative.”

What is It?

Radon gas results from the breakdown of uranium that naturally occurs in soil and rock almost everywhere on the planet. It can easily get into your home through cracks in the foundation walls and floor or gaps around service pipes. When you breathe in the gas, it rapidly decays and emits alpha particles, which can damage bronchial and lung tissue. Over time, it can lead to lung cancer. The risk depends on the level of radon and length of time of exposure. If you’re a smoker, the risk of lung cancer from exposure to radon is eight times higher.

Health Canada has lowered the guideline for exposure to radon gas in dwellings (including schools, hospitals, and other institutions) from 800 to 200 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3). The new Canadian guideline is still not as low as that in the United States, where the equivalent of 150 Bq/m3 is considered the maximum acceptable; however, Canada is in line with international standards.

So Now What?

The first step is determining whether the amount of radon getting into your home exceeds the new guideline. A survey of some Canadian cities 30 years ago found some places were more likely than others to be radon hot spots. But the same studies found it is impossible to predict whether any particular house will have high levels of radon. Levels can vary dramatically, even between similar homes located side by side.

Health Canada estimates that between 2 and 3 percent of Canadian homes exceed the 200 Bq/m3 guideline, but the only way to know if your home is one of them is to have the air tested.

Take a Test

Fortunately, testing is easy and relatively inexpensive. Begin with a short-term test, which measures radon in the air for several days up to several months. Test kits are available in some hardware and natural health stores or they can be purchased online, starting at about $30. The not-for-profit Radiation Safety Institute of Canada (radiationsafety.ca) offers a seven-day test for $99. With any of these tests, the homeowner must send the sample to a lab for analysis.

If the level of radon gas detected is higher than 200 Bq/m3, you’ll want to follow up with another short-term test at a different time of the year; or you might run a longer test that gives you a better idea of the year-round average radon level. Levels can change depending on the weather and usually are highest in the winter.

If a long-term test still shows higher-than-acceptable levels of radon gas, the next step is remediation. Begin by checking your basement for large, obvious openings that can be fixed at little cost. Cracks in foundations should be sealed with concrete to cover exposed soil; open sumps can be fitted with an airtight cover; and traps can be installed in floor drains to allow water to leave without letting in radon gas.

Call an Expert

You may need to call in someone with expertise in radon mitigation. Health Canada is working toward certification requirements for companies. In the meantime, look for a contractor who is certified by the National Environmental Health Association or the National Radon Safety Board, both America-based organizations. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average cost of home remediation is about $1,200.

You’ll want to re-test your home after repairs to ensure the level of radon gas is at or below what’s now considered acceptable. The EPA says it’s possible to reduce radon levels to the equivalent of 74 Bq/m3, less than half Canada’s new guideline. The lower the levels, the lower your chances of developing lung cancer.

What’s a Becquerel?

A becquerel, or Bq, is the standard international unit of radioactivity, corresponding to the decay of one nucleus per second, named after French physicist and Nobel laureate Henri Becquerel.

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