Loose radon guidelines are costly

A national radon program will cost Canadians $1.25 billion over the next 10 years, but still won’t protect Canadians from preventable…

A national radon program will cost Canadians $1.25 billion over the next 10 years, but still won’t protect Canadians from preventable radon-induced lung cancer.

In March 2006, Health Canada’s radon working group published suggested stricter radon guidelines for residential homes and high-use public buildings such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons.

The as-yet-unofficial new policy would reduce the acceptable level of exposure from 800 becquerels per cubic metre to 200 Bq/m3.

“Indeed we estimate that about 90 per cent of radon-induced lung cancers occurred in homes with levels of radon below 200 becquerels per cubic metre,” said professor Sarah Darby, during a BBC interview in 2004.

In 1997, Health Canada estimated that 1,589 lung-cancer deaths were caused by long-term exposure to radon.

By Darby’s count, more than 1,400 of those cases would not have been prevented even with Health Canada’s proposed new guideline.

Darby is well-respected British epidemiologist based in Oxford.

Her team has published research on radon risks in Europe. That work help shape Health Canada’s national radon strategy.

The Health Canada radon report agrees in principle with Darby’s findings.

There is a measurable risk of lung cancer at radon levels as low as 100 Bq/m3, the report says.

The working group opted to recommend 200 Bq/m3 as a good benchmark.

The new guideline “can be achieved with conventional radon reduction methods in a cost-effective manner,” the report said.

In contrast, the US Environmental Protection Agency recommends homeowners take action if they measure above 80 Bq/m3.

At that level, non-smokers face a radon-risk equal to the risk of being poisoned.

Smokers face six times the risk.

The cost to Canadians of achieving even the moderate gains from a radon-guideline reduction are fierce, and some suspect that those costs are what have delayed federal Health Minister Tony Clement’s official announcement.

“It will be coming in the near future,” said Erik Waddell, assistant to the minister.

Health Canada’s decision to change the radon guideline would be made based on science and a mandate to look after the health of Canadians — not on cost — Waddell said.

“This (the federal cost) is something that we’ll be preparing for when we roll the regulations out. At that time we’ll be able to announce the regulations and how the federal government’s going to be dealing with them,” he said.

Health Canada estimates it will cost $636,000 to bring Yukon’s existing housing stock in line with the “acceptable” risk level. That figure is based on a $50 testing charge for 7,750 detached homes, and a $1,200 mitigation of 207 identified problem-homes.

Past grants to homeowners to make their homes energy efficient could have inadvertently made their homes radon-prone by encouraging reduced ventilation.

There are no Yukon government or CMHC grants available to homeowners for radon mitigation.

It will also cost $14,000 to test Yukon’s 27 schools, according to Health Canada.

The radon report predicts, based on nationwide averages, that only one school will be problematic.

It should cost about $22,000 to fix.

The report also estimates it will cost only $1,000 to test Yukon’s two hospitals.

It optimistically predicts that neither will have unacceptable radon findings.

Though Clement has delayed announcing the new 200 Bq/m3 radon guideline, Health Canada is already doling out funds for radon.

In order to test some local daycares, schools, and guinea-pig businesses, the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board has applied for a grant of $15,000, which it will match in-kind.

“We want to be able to tell people up front: ‘Here’s what we found in your area, and you might want to do testing of your own,’” said Kurt Dieckmann, director of Occupational Health and Safety.

“We’d look at daycares, because there’s a lot of daycares in basements. We’d look at schools if they’re slab-on-grade or have basements,” he said.

The US Environmental Protection Agency states that there is currently no conclusive data on whether children are at greater risk than adults from radon, though they are more susceptible to certain types of cancers from radiation.

To more quickly target radon-prone communities, Health Canada is on board with the Geological Survey of Canada in developing a cross-country radon map — as the UK and US have already done.

This summer, Geological Survey of Canada technicians will be flying low over New Brunswick, taking airborne radiation readings in order to map out what they call, radon potential.

The idea is that air surveys can more quickly pinpoint neighbourhood-sized radon trouble spots.

“Our data gives us a first approximation of the radon potential but the only way to be absolutely sure is to take a direct measurement,” said geophysicist Ken Ford.

Ford’s team will try to link this summer’s readings with real radon gas measurements on the ground.

The Geological Survey of Canada has conducted air surveys in the Yukon in the past, but only collected data in two remote mining areas, one south of Dawson City and the other south of Ross River.

 Only a small amount of ground testing has happened in the Yukon since the mid-1990s, with most concentrated in Whitehorse.

Some buildings in Carcross and Teslin have been investigated, but the Yukon Geological Survey doesn’t have an overall picture for the territory.

 “The testing that’s been done has been voluntary; people have done it on their own,” said director Grant Abbott.

“We’ve never had a systematic government program of testing,” he said.

Airborne data proved useful to the community of Oka, which has a history of niobium contamination. Some homes in the Quebec-based community have in-home radon levels of 10,000 Bq/m3.

Ford’s team was asked to give an opinion on the location of a proposed new subdivision based on their radon potential map.

“The area where this housing development was proposed actually had a higher radon potential than the existing housing development,” Ford said.

The local government put restrictions on the builder’s high-end housing plans.

He was not pleased to learn he had to build the homes on stilts, without basements, to prevent radon from leaching in.

The matter, Ford said, went to the courts.

The Yukon does not enforce radon-related codes for new homes.

It would cost only an extra $500 during the construction phase to build a radon-proof home, Health Canada estimates.

Costs to fix a radon problem in a home can run anywhere from $500 to $3,000.

Some of the existing homes in Oka paid more than $5,000.

One of the best times to undertake a radon investigation for existing homes is during a sale, according to Health Canada.

Radon testing could be made a mandatory part of selling your home, as it is in approximately 34 US States.

 “We do have disclosure statements, but radon gas is not included on it,” said Mike Racz, president of the Yukon Real Estate Association and a realtor with RE/MAX.

Realtors in the Yukon commonly make use of a standard form with fields for disclosing asbestos, problems with heating or air-conditioning systems, moisture problems, insect or rodent damage, and history as a grow op or meth shack.

However, disclosure statements for are not mandatory for selling a home in the Yukon.

Part of a series.