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Experts urge radon testing for all homeowners

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Cathy Dobson 

Radon gas – a known carcinogen – comes from the ground and is in all our homes. The question is how much.

Levels that exceed Health Canada’s recommendation of 200 becquerels (Bq) per cubic metre, need to be fixed because they’ve been linked to lung cancer, says Pam Warkentin, a radon expert who spoke to Sarnia-Lambton’s Golden K Kiwanis club Tuesday.

Warkentin is the executive director of the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (CARST), as well as project manager for Take Action on Radon. She works from Winnipeg with input from Health Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society to get the word out that Canadians need to test their homes for dangerous levels of radon.

It’s not expensive to test for the invisible, tasteless and odorless gas, she said. The “gold standard” in detectors costs under $100.

If testing shows unacceptable radon levels, the cost to install a mitigation system in the

Rob Maccarrone

home is estimated between $2,700 and $3,000, said Robert Maccarrone, an engineer speaking to the Golden K from Stoney Creek Ontario where he co-founded Canada Radon, a business that monitors and mitigates radon from buildings.

“The great news is that, if mitigation is done properly, it is very effective,” he said. “Tests are extremely reliable and affordable.”

Since newer homes tend to be more airtight, they can retain more radon, Maccarrone said. Many municipalities have radon provisions for new construction. Sarnia is not one of them.
Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer in Canada but radon exposure is number two, said Warkentin.

Lung cancer is difficult to detect and often goes undiagnosed until it is advanced, she said.

“That’s why we talk about prevention. If we can encourage people to test and mitigate high levels of exposure to radon, we can prevent many lung cancers.”

Warkentin said that since raising awareness about radon, she has talked to a disproportionate number of men who have lost their wives to lung cancer.

The wives had no smoking history and the families knew nothing about radon, she said.
“That’s why I participate in Take Action on Radon.”

Radon testing requires a detector to be placed in the lowest level of the house that is used regularly, often the basement.

It needs to measure the air for a minimum of three months during the heating season when windows are shut. Then the detector is sent to a lab for analysis.

According to Health Canada, if levels are below 200 Bq per metre cubed, no action is necessary. If radon measures between 200 and 600 Bq per metre cubed, it’s recommended that homeowners should fix it within two years. Any measurement beyond 600, it should be fixed within one year.

“The higher the level, the sooner you should fix it,” Warkentin said. “But you (can live in your home) and have time to plan for it.”

While testing can be a do-it-yourself project, fixing it requires a professional to install a pipe that goes through the concrete foundation of the home and provide a pathway to discharge radon from the ground into the air outside the home.

If cost is a concern, there are several financing programs to help out, including a new one from the Canadian Lung Association, said Warkentin.

Radon is not just a problem for homeowners. It can be found at dangerous levels in any building with a tightly sealed contact with the ground, she said.

For more on testing for radon in your home, see Health Canada’s site at https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/environmental-workplace-health/reports-publications/radiation/radon-reduction-guide-canadians-health-canada-2013.html or visit https://carst.ca/ or https://takeactiononradon.ca/provinces/ontario/.

QUICK FACTS
• Radon is a carcinogenic radioactive gas that comes from disintegrating uranium in the soil;
• Radon is present in the air everywhere at low concentrations, but can accumulate inside buildings to dangerous levels;
• Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, leading to over 3,000 deaths per year in Canada.
• 10% of lung cancers worldwide are related to radon exposure.
• A Health Canada survey shows about 8% of homes in Ontario test above the guidelines for safe radon levels. CARST says it could be closer to 20%.

(Sources: Take Action on Radon and Health Canada)

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