Raising awareness of radon risks
Alan Whitehead says he isn’t one to believe in fate, but even he admits that some recent circumstances in his life can only be described as uncanny. About seven years ago, the Vancouver resident started a company called Radon Environmental Management Corp., which researches and raises awareness of lung cancer deaths caused by radon gas. Two years after that, his wife, Janet—a nonsmoker—was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Whitehead’s knowledge about radon gas made him suspect that a home the couple had lived in in the 1990s, which was situated in a radon “hot spot” in Ontario, was the source of her potentially lethal exposure.
“She never smoked and was never around people who smoked,” Whitehead says in a phone interview. “I knew from radon mapping that where we used to live in Ottawa was a high-radon zone. Once she was diagnosed, I contacted the [current] homeowner, a lady in her 40s with three children who’d been in the house for 10 years. I explained the situation and my suspicions and asked her if she’d test the home and would be willing to share information.…Within 48 hours, I got a call.” The radon levels in the home were through the roof.
Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, naturally occurring radioactive gas that’s produced in the ground by the decay of uranium found in soil and rocks. It’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
When radon escapes from bedrock into outdoor air, it’s diluted to such low concentrations that it poses a negligible health risk. However, the gas can be released into a building through cracks in foundation walls and floors or gaps around pipes and cables. When it’s confined in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces, it can accumulate to high levels.
“Radon exists in every indoor environment; the question is to what degree,” Whitehead says. “It’s in homes, schools, and workplaces. It is a carcinogen. It’s radiation. It’s harmful.”
Janet Whitehead, who was 54 when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, underwent successful surgery to remove the upper left lobe and a third of the lower lobe of her left lung as well as tumours in the lobes of her right lung.
“Had we known about radon when we were living in Ottawa, we would have tested our home for radon and fixed the problem at that time,” Whitehead says. “This is one lethal form of cancer that’s totally preventable.”
Whitehead urges everyone to test their home for the substance. There are two ways to do this: by purchasing a do-it-yourself radon test kit or by hiring a radon-measurement professional to come to your home and carry out the test for you.
In 2007, the BCCDC released a map of radon concentrations in communities throughout the province. Some of the areas with greater levels on the main floors of homes were Prince George, Clearwater, Barriere, Castlegar, and Nelson. But Whitehead says testing is essential no matter where you live.
“Certain areas of the country are much more prone [to radon exposure] than others based on geography, but that said, even in areas that are not considered rich in uranium and therefore high radon potential, there’s lots of evidence of many homes that are well above the guidelines.”
Health Canada’s guideline for the acceptable level of indoor radon was changed in 2007 from 800 becquerels per cubic metre to 200. (The measurement in the Whiteheads’ former home was over 3,000 Bq/m3.) According to the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, radon levels fluctuate daily, weekly, and yearly, with levels generally highest in winter and the late-night/early-morning hours. To obtain an accurate representation of mean annual indoor radon levels, the optimal testing period is 12 months, but short-term detectors can be used for as little as two days.
To mitigate radon exposure, measures include the use of sealant products to close off cracks and gaps in basement floors and walls and the capping of drains. The installation of a subslab ventilation system that pumps the gas out from beneath a house before it gets in is the most effective strategy.
Whitehead says steps are being taken to reduce people’s exposure to radon gas. Changes to the B.C. Building Code in 2012 and the 2010 National Building Code included requirements that new homes be provided with the rough-in for a subfloor depressurization system to eliminate radon gas. School boards throughout Quebec have been ordered to test all of their 3,600 schools for the radioactive gas, a move Whitehead is hoping B.C. will follow. And he’s hoping that family doctors will begin asking their patients about potential exposure.
“We need to raise awareness,” Whitehead says. “We’ve only just started telling Janet’s story; she’s very private, but it’s an example of why people need to test for radon. She’s determined to be one of the few who survive lung cancer.”