Should Ontarians be worried about radon?

Colourless, odourless, and plentiful: Why Kingston is warning residents about radon
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Nov 28, 2019
One in five homes tested in Kingston had radon levels higher than Health Canada’s guidelines. (Photo courtesy of the KFL&A Public Health)

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KINGSTON — In late November, in a basement in Kingston’s rural north end, Brooks Gee is talking to a potential client when his phone rings. He glances at it, says, “I’ll call them back later,” and continues his assessment.

It’s been a busy year for Gee, the local representative for Mr. Radon, a radon testing and mitigation company servicing much of Ontario. In April, he was attending a conference in Saskatoon for radon professionals when the calls started rushing in. The Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) public-health unit had begun releasing the results of its months-long study of radon levels in homes. Suddenly, Gee was in high demand.

“I got, like, 30 calls in three days, which is a flood for me,” Gee says.

Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that’s safe in small doses, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, according to Lung Cancer Canada. Almost always present, it is created by the decay of uranium in minerals. It is colourless, odourless, and tasteless — and only detectable through specific testing.

On this day in Kingston, Gee is giving Scott Woodall, one of 1,046 participants in the  KFL&A study, an estimate for a radon mitigation system — basically, a way to remove radon from under the home by forcing it outside. His home had tested at 254 Bq/m³ (becquerels per cubic metre), 54 Bq/m³ higher than Health Canada guidelines.

The testing kit consists of a small, black puck that participants place in the lowest lived-in level of their home. There, it collects an air sample for three months before it’s analyzed by a lab. Woodall, a former building sciences professor at St. Lawrence College, took part mostly out of curiosity.  “I wasn’t expecting to find such a high level,” he says.

He wasn’t the only one surprised. The  KFL&A study revealed a “high risk of exposure to radon in homes” in the Kingston area, with 21 per cent of participating homes testing above Health Canada’s guidelines. (The World Health Guidelines are even stricter than Health Canada’s, at 100 Bq/m³.)

Erin Hayes, public health promoter for  KFL&A Public Health, says radon is difficult to deal with. “Radon can get into our homes through cracks in the foundation — potentially anywhere where the ground makes contact with the home — and once it gets into the home, it’s harder for it to leave. And then it can build up to higher levels, which can lead to particles getting into the lungs,” she says. Health Canada estimates that 16 per cent of lung-cancer deaths are related to radon exposure. Put another way, Hayes says, it is “the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers.”

Hayes says that while the public-health unit takes radon levels seriously, “a lot of people still aren’t even aware of what it is.” So, it’s developed a public awareness campaign. The  KFL&A Public Health website offers $20 home testing kits through the month of November, which the federal government has dubbed national Radon Action Month. Flyers sent to Kingston residents warned that “all homes should be tested for radon.”

The problem goes beyond Kingston. A 2014-2015 study in Thunder Bay found that 16 per cent of homes were above Health Canada’s 200 Bq/m³ threshold, while a 2017-2018 Windsor-Essex County Health Unit study showed 6.5 per cent of homes had unsafe levels. West of Kingston, in Hastings and Prince Edward County, the local health unit began its own study this month, with results expected next year.

Back in Woodall’s basement, Gee explains the next steps. First is a pressure field extension test, that measures the amount of air pressure under a home. It helps determine how to create an airflow system to redirect the radon outside.

This type of system is not cheap, according to Kelley Bush, manager of Health Canada’s radon education and awareness program. “A typical system is between $2,000 and $4,000,” she says. “Opening windows in the house can reduce [radon levels], but that’s not necessarily feasible in our climate.”

She adds that Health Canada has created a guide for homeowners that describes different mitigation options, their rough costs, and important questions to ask a contractor.

In Kingston, study participants whose households tested between 200-600 Bq/m³ were advised to act within two years, while households that tested above 600 Bq/m³ were encouraged to do so within the year.

“We did have a couple of homes that had very high levels,” says Hayes. “It’s ultimately the long-term exposure that is harmful. So it’s not necessarily an emergency, but we do alert people that they should act sooner rather than later.”

“I receive calls on a regular basis from people who have lung cancer who never smoked — or quit smoking a long time ago — who have gone back and tested their home. The consistent response is, ‘I wish I tested,’” says Bush. “Radon is in every single home and building. We have uranium everywhere in the earth’s crust. The challenge is getting people to do something about it.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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