Like many Canadians, Michael and Jana Katz knew next to nothing about radon when the man from Mike Holmes Inspections suggested conducting a radon test on their home in Niagara Falls. When the results came in, they listened, stunned, as he revealed that their finished basement tested at almost five times the maximum level recommended by Health Canada.
Radon is a radioactive gas that’s present – in varying amounts – in every home in Canada. It is generated naturally as small amounts of uranium in the soil and the rock beneath a house break down. The deadly gas then seeps into the building through cracks in the foundation, floor drains or openings for pipes.
The Katzes have lived in their house on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac since it was built 28 years ago, without once suspecting there might be a problem. “You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it,” says Michael. “You don’t even know it’s there.”
Radon is indeed colourless and odourless – but it’s certainly not harmless. It is responsible for 16% of lung cancer deaths, making it the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. This gas kills an estimated 3,200 Canadians every year.
“Our test came back 957 – that’s unbelievably high,” says Jana, referring to the 957 Becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3) the Holmes company technician found in their home.
In fact, Health Canada says people who live in homes that test at 200 Bq/m3 and above should take immediate action to reduce the amount of radon entering the building.
“The only way to find out if the air in your house is contaminated with radon is to conduct a radon test,” says Connie Choy, air quality co-ordinator with the Ontario Lung Association. “The best time for this is late fall and winter when the house is closed up against the cold.”
Choy says once you’ve decided to test your home, there are two options: you can either contact a radon professional, who will come to your house and take you through the testing procedure (see www.takeactiononradon.ca for a nationwide directory of radon contractors); or buy a home test kit from a hardware store or order one online from The Lung Association (www.on.lung.ca/radon).
When buying a kit, make sure it’s the long-term version that measures radiation levels in your home for at least three months. Then simply place the puck-sized tester in the lowest level of the house where people spend at least four hours a day (usually the basement or first floor). After three months, retrieve the device, seal it and send it to the lab in the addressed envelope provided. Results will be mailed to you in a few weeks. The total cost is $30 to $40.
A few years ago, a Health Canada study determined that 7% of a random selection of 14,000 homes nationwide had radon concentrations higher than the recommended maximum (200 Bq/m3). Contaminated homes were found in every province and territory, with the exception of Nunavut.
And while the study identified high-risk regions where a higher than average number of houses were contaminated, living outside these regions is no guarantee of safety. Michael and Jana’s house in Niagara Falls is in a so-called low-radon zone.
In another example, a young couple who tested their home in the northern Toronto suburb of Don Mills found high radon levels, while their nearest neighbours had low readings.
“The good news for homeowners is that if the radon test confirms your house is contaminated, fixing the problem is easy and relatively inexpensive,” says Choy.
The most common and effective mitigation method is called Active Soil Depressurisation (ASD). The contractor drills a hole in the basement floor and installs a pipe with a small fan. This draws the radon gas from under the house and vents it into the outside air.
Health Canada recommends hiring a professional certified under the Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program to complete the remediation work. You can find a list of certified radon professionals at www.takeactiononradon.ca. The cost depends on the size of the home and the mitigation system required.
“The average remediation project will take a day or less, and will cost between $1,500 and $3,000,” says Choy. “That’s less than the cost of a new furnace – and money well spent for your family’s safety and peace of mind.”
For more information about radon, or to order a home radon test kit, go to www.on.lung.ca/radon. If you have questions about radon or other indoor air quality issues, phone The Lung Association Lung Health Information Line at 1-888-344-LUNG (5864) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos courtesy of the Ontario Lung Association. Infographics courtesy of Health Canada.