Homeowners urged to test for cancer-causing radon gas

Saskatchewan is one of four radon hotspots in Canada but most people aren't testing for it. Eduardo Trombetta had a radon gas reading four and a half times the acceptable level in his Regina home.

Saskatchewan is one of four radon hotspots in Canada

Eduardo Trombetta's (left) house had a radon reading four-and-a-half times Health Canada's guideline. (CBC)

It is called the silent killer. Radon gas is invisible, odourless and tasteless and is the second leading cause of lung cancer. It seeps into homes from the soil beneath the foundation.

Eduardo Trombetta (CBC)
Eduardo Trombetta's Regina home got a reading of about 900 becquerels. The suggested exposure guideline of Health Canada is 200 becquerels per cubic metre. (200 Bq/m3). A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity.

"It was a little bit alarming, he said. "I knew we'd be on the higher end of the scale but I didn't think it would be that high."

Saskatchewan is one of four radon hot spots in Canada along with Manitoba, New Brunswick and the Yukon. The provinces had the highest percentages of participant homes which tested above the radon guideline.

CBC News has obtained about 14 thousand never-released Health Canada testing results that show radon gas levels in neighbourhoods across Canada, including Saskatchewan.

Few homeowners test for radon

The survey shows there are no areas that are radon free. Provinces with a lower incidence of elevated radon still have hot spots with high levels of radon.

Foundation floor cracks in Eduardo Trombetta's house. (CBC)
Yet many home owners don't test for the radioactive gas, and those that do, are often surprised at what they find.

Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when uranium in the soil degrades. It can seep into buildings through cracks in foundations walls and floors, gaps around service pipes and construction joints, as well as floor drains.

The gas can accumulate to levels that are dangerous for people exposed to it over long periods. It causes about 16 per cent of lung cancer cases.

Trombetta filled the cracks in his basement floor but that didn't lower the level of radon gas in his house. So he called in a professional who installed a fan on his sump pump system to vent the radon gas out of his house.

"It cost us about $3,000 dollars to get it dealt with," Trombetta said. "But given your health, it's a pretty fair trade off."

Lack of awareness about radon

Trombetta wonders why other people aren't testing their homes.

Kent Mohn with Sun Ridge Residential shows roughed in mitigation measures in a new home (CBC)
"It seems to be kinda brushed off," he said. "The awareness I don't think is terribly high and the concern factor doesn't seem to be all that high even when you do make people aware."

Kent Mohn, with Sun Ridge Residential in Saskatoon, is one of only a handful of people in Saskatchewan who are certified to mitigate radon. He agrees with Trombetta that there isn't a lot of awareness of radon gas.

"At this point the average homeowner isn't aware radon is an issue in Saskatchewan," Mohn said. "And they don't know there are health issues."

How to test for radon

Mohn says radon gas concentration levels will vary from one house to another, even if they are similar and next door to each other. The only way to know is to test.

He says the gas collects in low areas of old and new homes. He says a test kit should be placed in the basement for a minimum of three months during the winter when windows and doors remain closed.

A radon test kit. (CBC)
"You're going to want to be in the lowest area of your home where there is either a bedroom or a family room." Mohn said.

Tests kits can be purchased at hardware stores, the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, and the Saskatchewan Research Council. They cost about $50. Homeowners can also call a certified professional who can test and remediate if a high level of radon is found.

"Radon exists everywhere," Mohn said. "So there's always a level of radon and what you need to determine is the level of radon in your home."

Remediation various for each house. The cost ranges from about $800 to $3,000.

Building code changes in 2010 require new homes to have roughed in mitigation measures in place, such as ventilation pipes in the foundation in case radon gas is found, making any fix much less expensive.

No mandatory testing of public buildings

There is no mandatory testing for radon in public buildings and workplaces in Saskatchewan, including schools, long-term care homes and daycare centres.

Mike Carr is Saskatchewan's Deputy Minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety. "From our perspective we have not done a lot of work in this area simply because there hasn't been a call or demand for it," he said.

Carr said some testing has been done but there's no protocol and no registry. He says the government doesn't follow up to find out whether remediation work is done if high levels of radon gas are found in public buildings.

The Saskatoon Health Region and the Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region have said they have not done any testing at their own facilities.

The Saskatoon Public School Division said that 33 of its 57 schools were tested in 2010. It said one of them had a radon gas reading of 281 becquerels per cubic metre, but no remediation was done.

There is also no legal requirement for landlords to test rental properties, and there is no legal requirement for landlords to mitigate radon levels.

But the province said new rules around radon may be coming. It's undertaking an 18-month review of all of the occupational health and safety regulations and there will be public consultation.

Quebec is the only province currently testing all its public schools for radon.

Top 10 radon test readings in Saskatchewan

 Bq/m3   (becquerels per cubic metre)

1) Eston: 2165 

2) Pense: 1718

3) Wilcox: 1373

4) Listeux: 1062

5) Vanguard: 975

6) Regina: 934

7) Pense: 904

8) Uranium City: 833

9) Biggar: 755

10) Acadia: 719

(Source: Health Canada, 2012)

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