SFU health sciences professor Anne-Marie Nicol is the principal investigator for CAREX Canada, a national project based at SFU that estimates Canadians’ exposures to cancer-causing agents in workplaces and communities. (Photo: SFU's Office of the Vice-President, Research)

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Five things you should know about radon—a radioactive cancer-causing gas

November 10, 2016
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New research from SFU health sciences professor Anne-Marie Nicol and CAREX Canada found Quebec to be the only province in the country with mandatory radon testing in schools. Since the 1990s, only 22 per cent of B.C. public schools have been tested for radon.

The radioactive, colorless, odorless, and tasteless noble gas occurs naturally as a decay product of radium and, because of its denseness, can accumulate in high concentrations in buildings, particularly basements.  

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. It is responsible for more than 3,200 lung cancer deaths each year according to Health Canada.

“Given that children and staff spend a considerable amount of time in schools where radon levels can build up, it is important to not only implement radon testing initiatives regularly but to also ensure that radon levels are lowered if they pose a risk,” says Nicol, who is CAREX Canada’s principal investigator.

CAREX Canada is a national project based at SFU that estimates Canadians’ exposures to cancer-causing agents in workplaces and communities. 

The month of November is Radon Action Month. Here are five things you should know about radon: 

1.    Radon is colourless, odourless and tasteless

This is in contrast to natural gas, which has a distinctive smell added so people know when there’s a leak. There is no way to determine if you have radon inside your home unless you test for it.

2.     Radon causes lung cancer

Radon has been clearly identified by many agencies, including the World Health Organization and Health Canada, as a known human lung carcinogen. Radon gas is part of the natural decay of uranium present in rocks and soil across the country. As radon breaks down, it emits radioactive particles that can be inhaled. Once inside the lung, these particles can damage DNA and eventually lead to lung cancer.

3.    Radon enters and accumulates in homes and buildings through cracks and openings

Because radon is a soil gas, it can diffuse up through the soil into indoor environments. Radon can enter a home or building through unfinished floors, crawl spaces, wall slab joints, windows and cracks and openings in foundations. Radon levels in buildings tend to be higher in the winter than the summer.

4.    Testing is the only way to know if dangerous levels of the gas is present

Radon testing is available through certified professionals but do-it-yourself kits can also be purchased through local lung associations and hardware stores.  Health Canada recommends remediation for buildings and homes that have a radon concentration greater than 200 Bq/m³ (Becquerel per cubic metre).  The amount of radon in homes and buildings can be influenced by geography as well as building design, ventilation, use patterns and renovations such as energy efficiency retrofits.

A list of certified radon professionals by province can be found at the Canadian National Radon Proficiency Programs website. 

5.    188,000 Canadians are occupationally exposed to radon

Within B.C., CAREX Canada estimates more than 20,000 workers are exposed to radon. Nationally, elementary and secondary schools are the largest exposure group by industry, with 16,000 workers affected. The largest group of workers exposed to radon by occupation are general office clerks.