Quebecers indifferent to dangers of radon, need to protect their homes, expert warns

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, but many Quebecers don't take its dangers seriously. An expert offers tips on how to protect your home from this radioactive gas.

The radioactive gas is a leading cause of lung cancer, yet few willing to take its dangers seriously

According to a new study commissioned by Health Canada, more than 1 million Canadian homes have high radon levels. (CBC)

Even though we can't see, smell or taste it, radon gas can enter our homes and cause major health problems. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, and the main cause among nonsmokers.

November is Radon Awareness Month and according to a new study commissioned by Health Canada, more than 1 million Canadian homes have high radon levels.

But the same study also found that only six per cent of Canadians test their homes for radon. Quebec, moreover, is the province with the lowest awareness of radon (38 per cent) and Quebecers are the least likely to worry about it.

Erin Curry is the Executive Assistant at the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists. She spoke with the host of CBC Montreal's All in a Weekend, Sonali Karnick.   

All in a Weekend: What is radon gas?

Erin Curry: Radon gas is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas. It comes from the decay of uranium in the soil. While it is present everywhere, even in the air we breathe, it also can accumulate in our homes to dangerous levels. That's the unnatural part about radon gas.

'There are many kinds of radon detectors available, but you can get a tester as small as a hockey puck,' said Erin Curry of the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists. (Windsor-Essex County Health Unit)

AIW: How does it get into our homes?

EC: Since it comes from the soil and our homes are in contact with the soil, radon gas comes in through the foundation, in cracks in the foundation, in pipes and every other way it can. Our homes are sealed against the weather, so it stays inside. [Radon levels] tend to be higher in the winter.

AIW: The Heath Canada study indicates that between five and 10 per cent of Quebec homes could have dangerous levels of radon. Are there some areas in the province that are more prone than others to elevated radon gas levels?

EC: There will definitely be areas where the levels are higher. However, it is impossible to predict any individual home's level. So it is important to test, even if your neighbour has an acceptable level.

AIW: How much does a soil analysis help?

EC: It may give you some indication but the only way to know the radon concentration in your home is to have your home tested.

AIW: How do you test your home?

EC: Canadians can go to https://takeactiononradon.ca/ and that's where they can buy a test kit or hire a professional to test their home.

AIW: How does it work?

EC: There are many kinds of radon detectors available, but you can get a tester as small as a hockey puck. You leave it in your home for three months and then send it in for testing to the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (instructions can be found on the test kit if ordered from the organisation) and then you'll get a lab report in the mail.

AIW: If you do have unsafe levels of radon, how do you remove it?

The important thing to remember is that no matter what the result is, your home can be reduced to a safe level. You can find a certified professional to assess the best way to reduce the radon in your home. The number one most effective method is active soil depressurisation: a pipe goes down through your basement floor and it sucks all the air from beneath the basement slab and blows it outside and that removes all the radon and other soil gases.

'We're estimating there are over 3,200 deaths a year from lung cancer caused by radon in the home,' Curry said. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

AIW: Health Canada supports radon testing, as do the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. But not everyone does.  How controversial is the idea that radon in our homes is a health risk?

EC: There's no debate as to the health risk. It's absolutely proven. We're estimating there are over 3,200 deaths a year from lung cancer caused by radon in the home. That's more deaths than motor vehicle collisions, house fires, drowning and carbon monoxide deaths. Radon is far worse than any of these as a risk to your health.

AIW: Can we live with low levels of radon?

EC: The radon level in your home fluctuates. Health Canada recommends testing for at least three months during the heating season so that we can get an annual average. Anything above 200 Becquerel per cubic metre poses enough risk that you should do something about it. Anything below that is acceptable.

AIW: Why is there so little radon awareness in Quebec?

EC: That's extremely hard to say. Perception of risk is a hard thing to get going. The Radon program here in Canada has only been around for 10 or 12 years. It's still very new compared to smoking or something like that. But the risk is very real and eventually we'll get there.

It's time to get your home tested for radon gas. We'll tell you why and how to do it. 10:05