The other lung cancer risk that is not often discussed

The discussion around lung cancer, especially during November, often revolves around smoking.

After all, smoking has received the most attention because it continues to be the biggest risk factor in getting lung cancer. While this attention is much needed, it also adds stigma around lung cancer. After all, those who have it have made a personal choice to smoke, and now they are experiencing the consequences; this is a common, but unhelpful, view of lung cancer.

The reality is much more uncomfortable: you can get lung cancer by simply living in your home.

Radon gas is the number two cause of lung cancer in Canada, and the highest rate among non-smokers. The gas is formed by the breakdown of uranium in the soil. Radioactive particles, or radon gas, can get lodged in your lung tissue, damaging your lungs, and increasing the risk of cancer. Around 3,200 Canadians will die from radon exposure every year in Canada; this is 16 per cent of all lung cancer deaths.

Radon can enter your home in a number of ways. The gas varies in intensity depending on where you are in the country, and some soils have a higher concentration than others. Typically, sandy soils allow radon to flow more freely than clay-based soils. Geographically, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Yukon have higher levels of radon in their homes than Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador or Ontario, according to a 2012 study.

Regardless of geography, how radon stays in the home comes down to home construction. Certain types of homes are better at trapping radon inside, with more entry points for the gas depending on the construction of the home. The condition of the home’s foundation also plays a role, as every crack is a potential entry point for the gas. A recent survey from a group of researchers from the University of Calgary found that radon levels in new homes in Canada were 467 per cent higher than they were in Sweden, a country of comparable geography and climate.

Even the pressure difference from turning on an exhaust fan, opening a window, or starting a fire can have an impact on the amount of radon in the home, as it changes the air pressure between the house and the soil. The weather can also affect how much radon is in a home, as that can change the pressure as well. Health Canada stresses that there is no way to know the exact amount without doing a test, and that there is no risk-free level.

But even though every home has radon, how much of it is in your home is what’s key. Radon is measured in Becquerels per cubic meter, or Bq/m³. The World Health Organization suggests keeping the level at 100 Bq/m³. Health Canada recommendations state that if you have reading of 200 Bq/m³, you should take action to fix your home within two years. If it is above 600 Bq/m³, you need to get your home fixed within the year.

To find out your rating, you’ll need to buy a test kit.

Radon test kits are not difficult to get your hands on. They can be easily ordered online or bought from a hardware store, or from some health units. Radon kits can range from $30 upwards, averaging in the $45 range. Some detectors are more expensive if they do their own monitoring, as some radon detectors must be sent to a lab for analysis.

If your home does come back with a high radon level, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Radon Mitigation Professionals can be found across the country. These professionals will assess your home and find the best way to lower your levels.

With both tests and professionals, make sure they are Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program (C-NRPP) certified. This will ensure that the methods used to seal your home will effectively reduce your radon exposure.

These methods include active soil depressurization, which means installing a pipe through the foundation floor slab and attaching a fan. The fan will pull the radon gas out of the home and out into the air, which will be diluted to the point where it becomes harmless. Health Canada says these exhausts are at risk of becoming covered in ice over the winter, so make sure they are open to keep the radon venting out of your home.

Other methods involve simply sealing cracks in your home where gas can leak in. Sumps can be fitted with air-tight covers, floor drains can be covered, and cracks in cement can be filled in. Increasing ventilation can also be a solution, as well as installing a special gas barrier between your home’s foundation and the soil.

A common way to vent the gas is known as a radon rough-in with stub. Entry points are sealed through the slab, or base, of your home, and a stub is installed. A stub is a short vent pipe that is capped and rises from the floor. However, this is the most basic, and not the best, way to keep your home radon-free.

From these methods, the question follows: If we know radon is so deadly, why isn’t every home regularly tested and sealed when it is built.

Short answer: It’s complicated.

Back in 2010, Canada’s National Building Code was updated to require a radon rough-in with stub. However, every province has different building codes, some of which go above and beyond the typical improvements. Quebec, for instance, requires a rough-in with stub, test results to be submitted to municipalities, and sub-slab depressurization to happen the moment the dangerous threshold is reached. However, a new federal building code is on the way, and according to an Ontario Home Builder’s Association article, more rules will be implemented to make sure that Radon can be safely vented out of future homes.

Radon will continue to kill thousands of Canadians each year if nothing is done to improve home construction. This month, during Lung Cancer Awareness Month, the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network urges you to get your home tested for radon, and make the improvements needed to keep the levels as low as possible. Because, you can  get it by simply sitting in your home.

Check out more resources from Health Canada, Take Action on Radon and the Lung Association


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