Radon causes cancer. It is a naturally occurring gas caused by the breakdown of Uranium in soil, rock, and water. It occurs everywhere around the world, but some places are more problematic than others. Like Calgary. You can't smell it, see it, or taste it, but radon gas can kill. One in five homes in the Calgary area is estimated to harbor dangerous levels of this cancer-causing gas. Health Canada has set 200 Becquerels per cubic metre, 200 Bq/m3, as the bar which suggests action. The U.S. has adopted a 150 Bq/m3 level, and the World Health Organization has proposed a recommended level of 100 Bq/m3.
Aaron Goodarzi, assistant professor at U of C's Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute is collecting and mapping data to track the prevalence of excessive radon in homes. As of January 22, 2016, 268 homes have been tested, with the hope of 1,000 homes enrolled for testing by the month's end, and completion by April. Goodarzi laments the greater recommended levels in Canada, joking that perhaps Health Canada believes Canadians to be more tolerant of the harmful gas.
In reality, Goodarzi knows it is no laughing matter, as one of his group's partners has discovered levels as high as 4,300 Bq/m3 in British Columbia, and as high as 4,000 in Calgary. Karin Dumais, president of Radon West has been providing test kits to homeowners and helping to coordinate the scientists to provide corresponding data. One of the most dramatic situations, Dumais noted, found concrete poured everywhere in the basement except under the furnace. When in operation, the furnace sucked in air from beneath the foundation. In essence, it created a "radon distribution system" throughout the house.
Odourless, colourless, and tasteless, this sneaky gas has been found in high levels across Canadian prairies, deposited by glaciers. As it seeps through cracks and holes in foundations, walls, floors, drains, and sumps, it accumulates inside the house, especially during the cold winter months when doors and windows are shut tightly, creating a vacuum effect with minimal air circulation.
Dumais, who built an energy efficient home south of Okotoks was shocked when her net-zero structure tested with high results. She circulated the tester she used to family and friends, discovering there were high levels everywhere. "A neighbour had 1,000, my parents were 780 and my sister was at 2,400. Her levels are equal to having 4,320 dental X-rays per year per person. Those are really dangerous levels," Dumais recounted.
Despite the prevalence of the gas and the dangers it poses, the public remains relatively unaware of the issue. Scientists have been studying the gas and its effects since the 1970s, Goodarzi said, adding that, "In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has taken that step." He notes that in Canada it will be a bit more complicated, as the country considers radon as an issue for provincial jurisdiction. A naturally occurring element found in the ground, Health Canada is prevented from issuing a testing mandate.
The take home message here is that deaths from radon-induced lung cancer are preventable, and testing is the first step. If testing indicates a problem, it is followed by remediation, which simply changes a home's negative pressure or vacuum to positive pressure that draws the gas away from the foundation through pipes in the basement floor and fans that pull the contaminated air outdoors.