Yukoners move on radon while government stalls

While Yukoners are actively doing something about levels of airborne carcinogens in their homes and workplaces, Ottawa just wants to talk some more.

While Yukoners are actively doing something about levels of airborne carcinogens in their homes and workplaces, Ottawa just wants to talk some more.

This time, Health Canada wants to know what citizens think about building for safer levels of radon gas.

Until August 9, the public can comment on the health body’s recommendation that new homes are built with technologies that ensure that indoor radon gas concentrations hover around 100 becquerels per cubic metre.

Radon is a cancer-causing gas that leaks out of uranium-tainted ground.

It weighs more than air, so radon gas often gets trapped in the lower floors of structures.

Radon concentrations are measured as hits of radioactivity in a volume of airspace. Those same radioactive hits reach the inner spaces and cells of your lungs, leaving them damaged and ripe for cancer to take hold.

Canada’s most recent (1988) and still ‘official’ standard is a lofty and loose 800 Bq/m3.

That level was calculated based on even older studies of cancer rates suffered by Canadian uranium miners.

Health Canada has not yet made it official, but since the spring it has been preparing to announce a new standard of 200 Bq/m3 as a target ‘safe’ level for radon in existing Canadian homes.

As with the 100 Bq/m3 standard for new construction, the remedial guidelines only recommend — not require — that homeowners undergo renovations if they find they’re living with higher radon concentrations.

Health Canada posted online responses to peer reviewers’ questions on the new radon policy, detailing some of the challenges of radon-rule creation and enforcement.

“Although Canada’s National Building Code has requirements for exclusion of soil gases, exceptions permit builders to avoid the inclusion of radon-resistant technologies as standard building practices,” Health Canada wrote.

“In addition, under Canada’s Constitution Act, building regulation is the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments.”

While governments study, a number of Yukoners are acting on the health risks.

From January to May, Yukon Housing lent out its radon detectors to 25 homes. June saw an increase in surveying, with 15 homes tested, including those of two Yukon News employees.

One of those two tests came back with radon levels several multiples above-guideline; that employee, who lives in Wolf Creek, is presently seeking out basement radon remediation.

Wolf Creek is turning out to be a hotbed of radioactivity.

The Yukon News previously reported that a homeowner in the subdivision discovered years ago that he was living with radon levels of 9,000 Bq/m3 — 45 times higher than the proposed new ‘healthy’ limit.

He has since fixed-up his home to eliminate most of the radon leaks, and managed to sell it without too much fuss.

Health Canada assumes that its new radon ‘strategy’ will be most effectively implemented at the time of real estate transfers.

In the US, where the Environmental Protection Agency has been pressing since 1990 for radon-resistant features to be built into new homes, real estate transactions force 75 per cent of radon tests, Health Canada reported.

Sometimes sealing basement seams is enough to stop the gas from leaching into your home.

Other times, as some Wolf Creek residents discovered, a $2,000 or $3,000 ventilation system is necessary to combat the intrusion.

It all depends on what sort of radon levels a home accumulates and what sort of basement it came with — if it came with one at all.

Radon seeps out of uranium-rich bedrock and soil and, because it is a heavier gas than air, sticks close to the ground.

Outdoors, it dissipates but if it makes it indoors and into a poorly ventilated room or house, it collects and concentrates.

In three articles printed in late May and early June, the News reported that Yukon Housing was providing three-day tests for free to Yukoners who could make it down to their Jarvis Street offices.

“Things got pretty busy after that first article went in the paper,” said test administrator and technical officer Carmon Whynot.

Since then, more callers from outside Whitehorse, including a First Nation interested in performing a radon sweep of its community, have contacted Whynot’s office.

He has six homeowners on a waiting list.

Radon testing is best done in the winter months, when poorer ventilation and localized ground heating means homes suffer the most elevated indoor radon gas levels.

Whynot also warns that radon is not strictly predictable by geography or location.

“You need to realize too that when you have high or low levels of radon in your home it’s not necessarily attributed to where you live,” he said.

“The majority of that you can attribute to the construction of the home. A lot of people don’t realize that or don’t really want to accept that.”

Which makes building-for-radon that much more important, he said.

Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board will test schools, daycares and offices beginning in September, with or without Health Canada’s promised $15,000 radon fund.

 “No matter what they give to us we’re going to carry out a portion of the survey,” said occupational health and safety director Kurt Dieckmann.

A person’s risk for developing lung cancer over their lifetime is higher if they live or work in a radon-enriched environment.

Lifetime exposure to radon at a level of 800 Bq/m3 almost doubles a smoker’s risk of developing lung cancer when compared against the risk of living with a concentration of 200 Bq/m3; a non-smoker’s risk more than doubles.

Outdoor background concentrations hover at around 10 Bq/m3, and even a level of 100 Bq/m3 puts a home-dweller at a measurably increased risk for lung cancer.

“We briefly considered a guideline of 100 Bq/m3, but felt that the extra cost of achieving this value could not be justified,” Health Canada wrote in response to public comments.

“The Canadian choice of a guideline of 200 Bq/m3 was made based on risk, international harmonization, expected success of current remediation technologies and cost,” it wrote.

When Health Canada makes the radon strategy official, Ottawa will be responsible for fixing up radon-filled Crown properties.

Readers can see Health Canada’s peer-review responses and instructions on how to comment at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/radiation/radon/peer-pair-comment-radon_e.html

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