During a routine checkup in March 2020, Kong Khoo, an oncologist at BC Cancer, was diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer. He then underwent surgery to remove half of his right lung.
Khoo was a non-smoker and said he had a gut feeling that he knew where the cancer was coming from: exposure to radon in his home.
“I’m a cancer specialist, I treat lung cancer,” he told Global News. “I knew that radon causes lung cancer at low percentages, but I didn’t think it would be a problem for me and I didn’t think it would be in my home. »
He then ordered a radon detector and measured the gas levels in his Kelowna home. He found radon levels skyrocketing in parts of his house, particularly in the basement where his son played Lego, he said.
“I knew right away that this was probably the main cause of my lung cancer,” Khoo said, adding that he was grateful to doctors for being able to detect the cancer so early, as he had no symptoms. symptom.
“The radon detector was the largest $300 I’ve ever spent in my life,” he said. He immediately hired a specialist to mitigate the radon by installing a system that diverted it safely through a pipe under his house.
As the weather turns colder and Canadians begin to retreat further indoors, Khoo and other health experts are warning of the invisible threat of radon that can quietly seep into homes, offices and schools.
Radon is a radioactive gas resulting from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks, according to Health Canada.
When released from the ground into the outside air, it is diluted and is not a problem, but in enclosed spaces, such as homes, it can accumulate to high levels.
Uranium is a common element found throughout the Earth’s crust. As a result, radon gas can be found in almost every home in Canada, according to Health Canada.
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The health regulator estimates that about seven percent of homes across the country have high levels of radon. But it also differs across the country, as some regions of Canada have higher amounts of uranium in underlying rocks and soils.
For example, a 2012 Health Canada survey found that Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Yukon are at high risk due to their geology, and that Nunavut and Prince Island are at high risk due to their geology. Édouard are the least at risk. However, Health Canada warns that no region of the country is free of radon.
Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in Canada among non-smokers, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. The radioactive gas can build up to dangerous levels indoors, especially in poorly ventilated areas, experts warn.
“Radon is a gas naturally present in the soil throughout Canada. It moves up and through the air around us and is invisible. You can’t smell it or taste it,” said Pam Warkentin, executive director of the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (CARST).
“Anytime a building is in contact with the ground, radon can enter. And radon is linked to lung cancer, so exposure to high levels of radon is a concern because it can increase the risk of developing lung cancer,” she said.
About 16 percent of lung cancers in Canada are estimated to be linked to radon exposure, leading to more than 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to Health Canada.
And people who smoke and are exposed to radon are at even higher risk of lung cancer, said Elizabeth Holmes, director of health policy at the Canadian Cancer Society.
“It’s that time of year, in November, when people are indoors and windows are open less. It’s these poorly ventilated areas,” she said.
“The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that people test their homes for radon and then take steps to reduce elevated radon levels if they are detected. And that may involve working with a certified professional who can perform some tests for you.
How radon gets into homes
Whether it’s a home, restaurant or school, Warkentin said radon can enter buildings through a variety of routes. These include seepage through foundation cracks, entry through pipe openings and even through sump pumps and floor drains – “any opening that allows gas to enter,” he said. she declared.
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“They may be very small passages, but the gas can get in there. »
Radon concentration levels also vary from house to house, even if they are similar in design and next to each other, she explained.
“A house can be tall. And then the neighbor’s house next door could be low. So the only way to know is to test,” she said.
Radon is invisible, odorless and tasteless, but can be easily measured with a radon detector, Warkentin explained.
There are several options for obtaining a radon testing kit.
The cheapest and most affordable radon detectors are single-use types, designed for one-time measurement or short-term monitoring. Approved tests can be viewed online at Take Action on Radon. For these tests, Warkentin said it’s important to leave it in a good place for three months and then send it for analysis.
“For those who want smarter technology, there are all different kinds, and they will give you a more instantaneous reading,” she said. These can also be found on the Take Action on Radon website or at other retailers.
“You might consider leaving them on for at least a week and then start observing how the levels rise and fall in your home. But Health Canada recommends that everyone get tested for 91 days.
Dealing with the dangers of radon gas
After taking a radon test, she said it was important to note that Health Canada had established guidelines for acceptable levels of radon in indoor air.
The health regulator recommends that all homes and buildings be less than 200 becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m³).
“Becquerels are a measure of radioactivity in the volume of air. And so anything above that should really be fixed or reduced. But the World Health Organization also recommends a value of 100 becquerels,” she said, adding that when you reduce it, you may want to reduce it as low as possible.
If the reading exceeds 200 Bq/m³, she advises hiring a qualified radon mitigation professional to install a reduction system.
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