Health Canada says the Thompson Okanagan region is a prime generator of radon gas, the second leading cause of lung cancer in Canada.
Yet most area residents have never heard of radon exposure, and even fewer have actually had their homes tested for presence of the colourless and odourless gas that is derived from uranium metal in the ground.
Greg Baytalan, Interior Health specialist environment health officer, says not only is uranium commonly found in many areas of the B.C. Interior where houses have been built, but it also has been detected as part of the concrete rock makeup in public buildings.
Baytalan, who had to implement radon mitigation measures for his Kelowna home originally built in the 1950s, said while a uranium mining ban in B.C. instituted by the provincial government in the ’80s remains in place that doesn’t prevent it from being exposed in ground excavation, which is how it can find itself as a component of concrete.
He said home radon testing in Shannon Lake area of West Kelowna and Coldstream community outside of Vernon have shown both to be what he called “radon hotspots.”
He cited another example of the historic Peachland elementary school, originally built in 1911, that tested for above-acceptable radon levels, one of the first public buildings to do so in the Central Okanagan.
Mitigation efforts resolved the radon exposure, but now a neighbouring building tested in 2017 has shown equally high radon levels.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if all the buildings along that strip in Peachland tested for high levels of radon,” he said.
Baytalan was joined by Health Canada regional radiation specialist Mickey Leung and Anne-Marie Nicol, an epidemiologist and associate professor with the Simon Fraser University Faculty of Health Sciences, for a public presentation Tuesday in Kelowna about the health hazard posed by a high radon presence in your home and how to deal with it.
Similar public forums have been held across the Thompson Okanagan region in recent weeks in acknowledgement of both the high presence of uranium underground in the region and the lack of awareness about the health hazards of radon exposure among most Canadians.
Nicol said she was shocked to discover that radon was the second leading cause of lung cancer behind only smoking, responsible for 3,200 lung cancer related deaths each year in Canada.
Nicol is involved with CAREX, a multi-institution research project that combines academic expertise and government resources to generate an evidence-based carcinogen surveillance program for Canada.
Salmon Arm and Kelowna are among the communities selected to receive 100 free radon test kits as part of the 100 Test Kit Challenge where radon testing has been limited but potential exposure is high because of local uranium levels.
Leung said the existence of radon is the reality of Canada’s natural uranium-rich geology, and that any home has the potential to be exposed to it “unless they are built on stilts or in a tree.”
How the gas can escape from the ground and circulate for its four-day lifecycle generating alpha-impact doses of short-term radiation exposure tend to be cracks in the house foundation, well water exposure, sump pits, soil exposure, drainage pipe leaks or leaky ground-level windows.
Leung said radon is particularly prevalent in winter months when homes are sealed up to keep the cold air out, creating a vacuum chamber that essentially sucks the radon out of the ground, a process called stacking.
Steps to relieve that pressure can include improved ventilation, closing major structure openings and installation of a soil depressurization pipe below a house basement foundation.
“As of 2014, the B.C. Building Code was changed so that all new homes have to have that ventilation pipe roughed in so if the home generates a high radon reading at some point, then all you need to do is install the fan to activate the air circulation purpose for the pipe,” Leung said.
He said an active sub-slab depressurization system is about equivalent in cost to replacing an air conditioning unit or buying a washer and dryer.
“It is a technique that was invented by a Canadian named Arthur Scott and it works. That system is used extensively now in home construction and radon reduction all over the world,” added Baytalan.
For more information about how to self-test your home for radon, check out the website www.radonaware.ca or call 1-866-225-0709.