The Yukon government says it plans to make radon testing and mitigation a licensing requirement for new and existing child-care centres and family day homes in the territory.
“There’s no other jurisdiction in Canada that requires radon testing for licensed child-care centre and day homes,” said Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost. “So I’m really quite pleased that Yukon is leading the way.”
Frost said the facilities will have to meet Health Canada’s guidelines for radon levels.
There’s no timeline yet for when the new rules will come into effect. Frost said they will be “phased in.”
Over the coming months, the government’s internal working group will work with licensed child care facilities to determine how this requirement will be implemented and cause “the least amount of disruption possible while still protecting the health and safety of children,” she said.
Radon is a radioactive gas formed naturally by the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. It’s colourless and odourless. Exposure to radon has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung cancer.
Yukon has the third highest percentage of homes in Canada that tested above the national radon guidelines, according to the Yukon Housing Corporation.
NDP Leader Liz Hanson said she’s pleased the government is making the move but said she’s disappointed the announcement didn’t come with more concrete timelines.
“Things they want to get done they can get done quickly,” she said.
Hanson said the government should take this opportunity to review its direct operating grant — the money daycare operators get to help run the facilities. That grant hasn’t been updated since 2007, she said.
Operators already run on tight margins, she said. With added radon tests “there could potentially be some additional cost for some operators.”
Yukon’s deputy chief medical officer of health, Catherine Elliott, said the average cost in Canada to remediate high radon is around $1,500.
“But that’s an average, there’s a really wide range and it depends on building structure and radon levels,” she said.
Elliott said the decision to require radon testing for child-care centres and day homes is a good move.
“It’s a great step for Yukon to be taking and it’s really showing leadership.”
Elliot said there is only limited research on the radon and children.
Children have smaller lungs that are still developing and they breathe more quickly, “all of which would suggest their lungs may be more susceptible to an exposure such as radon,” she said. But there aren’t many studies that follow children exposed to radon to adulthood.
There are reasons to be cautious, she said.
“Risk is cumulative over time. So an exposure to radon in childhood followed by exposure in adulthood that would be cumulative.”
An auditor general’s report released in March criticized the government for its handling of radon in public buildings.
Radon was not monitored in Yukon schools between 2009 and 2016, even after four schools were found to have unacceptable radon levels in 2008.
Unacceptable radon levels were also found in seven of 21 private child-care centres and family day homes tested by the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board in 2008.
In 2016, the board went back to four of the seven centres — the others had either closed or moved — and has begun monitoring for a minimum of three months. It found that one of the centres had done work to mitigate the problem, but the other three had not.
Last month the government released new radon management guidelines. The guidelines lay out how government buildings will be tested for radon.
Testing will happen in most main floor rooms of government buildings, as well as some second floor rooms, and data will be collected for at least three months. All the results will be posted online.
If high radon levels are found, the government is given a set amount of time to mitigate the problem.
All 24-hour residential care facilities like group homes and long term care facilities as well as detention centres, schools, health centres, staff housing will be tested for radon from 2017-18.
Twenty-four-hour worksites like weigh stations and EMS stations will be tested in 2018-19.
The third year will be for other government buildings.
Buildings that have undergone mitigation to reduce radon levels will be re-tested within two years and every five years after that.
Between October and April the Department of Education is going to test all Yukon schools following the new guidelines, said spokesperson Jason Mackey.
Some work has started on the four schools that were flagged in 2008 and still had high levels of radon when testing resumed in 2016.
Work at Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek was completed in the fall. A series of pipes and vents were installed in the basement to vent gas outside, Mackey said.
Mitigation at Jack Hulland Elementary School is expected to be completed in late 2017. The plan is to drill holes in parts of the school to increase airflow.
Mitigation at Holy Family Elementary School is expected to take place in late 2017 or early 2018. Work on the Teen Parent Centre will be done by January 2018, Mackey said.
According to the Department of Health and Social Services, four group homes and one residence for community nurses tested above the Health Canada guidelines.
Two of those group homes were originally flagged in 2008, said spokesperson Michelle Boleen.
Work to mitigate the radon in those buildings is expected to be done at the end of January.
The guidelines give the government two years to complete work on the other three buildings. Work hasn’t started yet.
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