New Brunswick

'There was no clue': Woman certain radon found in basement caused her lung cancer

After undergoing surgery for lung cancer, Sue Rickards is warning New Brunswickers to check their homes for radon, an odorless, invisible gas that gets in from the outside.

Husband's complaint about her breathing put central New Brunswick resident on path to shocking diagnosis

Sue Rickards says she had no idea she had high levels or radon in her home until it was tested after discovering she had lung cancer. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

After undergoing surgery for lung cancer, Sue Rickards is warning New Brunswickers to check their homes for radon.

"They thought at the beginning they might have to take out the whole left lung," said Rickards, who lives west of Fredericton in Lower Queensbury.

"But it was sufficiently localized, so they only had to take out one lobe."

Rickards is very sure she got lung cancer because of a high amount of radon leaking into her house.

"I had no symptoms"

6 years ago
Duration 1:15
Fredericton resident Sue Rickards describes discovering she had lung cancer, despite being a non-smoker.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas in many places in New Brunswick, but when high levels collect in an enclosed area, it can be deadly with long-term exposure.

Health Canada says more than 3,000 deaths from lung cancer a year are caused by indoor radon exposure, the highest cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.

Rickards doesn't smoke and never worked or lived around smokers.

A year ago, in an off-hand comment to her doctor, she said her husband complained of her laboured breathing when she slept. He told her she sounded like an opera star dying of consumption in the last act.

Her doctor sent her for a chest X-ray. Neither expected a diagnosis of lung cancer.

"When it came back, we were just both — it took us totally by surprise. There was no clue, there was no reason it. I never smoked, I never lived with a smoker, so he said, 'where did this come from?'"

Home tested 

Victor Nowicki, the owner of Arc Geobac Group Inc., which has done radon remediation for over two decades, tested the Rickards house in Lower Queensbury.

The allowable limit for radon is 200 Bq/m3.

Victor Nowicki's company, Arc Geobac Group Inc. has done radon remediation on Sue Rickards's home. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

"Their radon level varies from about 700 to 1300 becquerels," said Nowicki. "That's three to seven times the allowable limit."

The invisible, scentless gas, is heavier than air, so tends to be more concentrated in lower levels, such as the basement where Rickards spends many hours in her home office.

Cause and effect is difficult to prove, Nowicki said, but given that Rickards doesn't smoke, never worked in a smoky environment and has spent so much time in the basement, the culprit in her illness is likely radon.

He said 'where did this come from?'

6 years ago
Duration 1:16
Sue Rickards describes finding elevated levels of radon in her home after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

"I think it's a pretty good indication that that was, at least partly, the cause of her lung cancer," he said.

Nowicki owns a house just down the road from the Rickards that has acceptable levels of radon.

Lower Queensbury is primarily on clay, and it is usually sand that carries the uranium that breaks down into radium, which turns into radon. He could only speculate that the radon might have come with the backfill pit sand and gravel used around the foundation of the Rickards house.

A radon machine tests the radon levels in Sue Rickards home. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)
"So I'm assuming that that captures, in that clay envelope, the gases produced from the sand and gravel, and that gets into the basement," he said.

"That was the only way I could think — or there could be aggregate rock, in the concrete itself, that is emitting radon."

Holes were drilled in the Rickards's basement floor, and a vacuum fan now sucks the gas through pipes to an outside vent. Their radon levels are now far below the allowable limit.

They also have a $120 monitor that lets them know a daily level in the house.

 "I don't hesitate to tell people about it, because of lot of people, it's alien to them, and 'Oh, I've heard of that, but it's not going to happen to me,'" said Sue Rickards. "Ha! Well maybe not, but maybe, so it's a good idea to check your house. Prevention is a lot better than treatment, for sure."


Catherine Harrop loves a good story. She has been a journalist for more than 25 years.