In 2013, Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, spent $45 on a radon home-testing kit shortly after moving into his new Calgary home. “It was a logical move,” he says. Goodarzi is a cancer researcher, and it’s no surprise that he has tested his home for radon gas. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, radon is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking, causing 3,000 lung cancer deaths per year in Canada.
Luckily, his home tested below Canada’s safety standards for radon gas. His sister also tested her home, which registered a high reading of radon gas.
"In terms of cancer prevention, home radon testing and mitigation is an effective strategy. As a society, we have a problem with environmentally induced cancers and all it takes is willingness to test and mitigate," says Goodarzi, an assistant professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. "My sister was able to mitigate her home very effectively, making it safe for her and her young family."
What is radon gas?
Radon is an invisible and odourless gas that comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in the soil. It can seep into the home through foundation cracks and other openings, mostly through the basements of homes. It affects Canadian homes, both old and new, in all geographical regions. Long-term exposure to radon gas causes manipulation in the body’s DNA, leading to cancer. It is the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.
"It is a public health concern. We have over 300 patients in Alberta who never smoked a day in their life who are now dealing with lung cancer,” he says. “Radon-induced lung cancer is completely preventable and could save the government as much as $17 million a year in health-care costs in Alberta alone."
Being a smoker and living in a home with radon gas puts you at an even higher risk, with a one-in-four chance of developing lung cancer.
How to test your home
A 2014 Canadian Cancer Society survey found that 96 per cent of Canadians have not tested their homes for radon gas. Goodarzi is concerned by how few homeowners are aware of the problem. “You don’t know if your home is affected unless you test it.”
The Health Canada website offers guidance on how to test homes. The website suggests using a long-term exposure test for a minimum of three months between October and April. The winter months are ideal as windows and doors are typically kept closed and there is less ventilation in the home. A long-term radon gas test costs about $60 (including cost of the device, postage and lab fees). Health Canada also offers information on home remediation and pegs the cost of remediation between $1,500 and $3,000, although this can be less depending upon how radon is entering the home. Learn more about testing your home.
Goodarzi has become a champion for radon gas testing and education — earning a UCalgary Peak Scholar award for his dedication to knowledge engagement within the community. He has given numerous public talks on radon gas and he provides Albertans with information and tools on how to test their homes.
In 2014, he challenged 40 of his colleagues — cancer researchers and physicians — to test their homes for the gas. He then launched a southern Alberta study recruiting people to test their homes. “After some media coverage we recruited about 2,000 people in just one weekend,” says Goodarzi. “People are reaching out to me, they are getting the message.”
Largest Albertan radon gas study to date
The results of this study were published in CMAJ Open this week. Over 2,300 homes in southern Alberta were tested, and the study found that one in eight homes exceeded Health Canada’s acceptable radon level. Read more about the study in UToday.
"This work demonstrates that radon is a genuine and growing public health concern in southern Alberta and, surprisingly, we also found that newer homes have a bigger radon problem," says Goodarzi.
The past and the future of radon gas
The connection between radon gas and lung cancer was made in the 1970s, after Canadian uranium miners in Elliot Lake were found to have unusually high lung cancer rates. In the 1970s and 1980s, research started to look at radon gas exposure in homes. Over the last decade, the presence of radon in homes has been getting more attention and homeowners are now seeing the urgency to get their homes tested.
"The science has simply advanced to the point where we know it is a major public health issue, and one that is very preventable. In Canada, there has been a low-level constant awareness on the issue for some time, however there is now increasing public awareness that we need to keep growing,” says Goodarzi.
In high-risk areas of some European countries, radon testing is mandatory in real estate transactions and Goodarzi believes that this is something we may see in Canada. “Radon awareness is advancing faster and faster every year, and we will reach a point I imagine within the next five to 10 years when people will simply consider radon testing a normal part of a home inspection before a home sale or after a major home renovation,” he says. “I expect we will all look back in 10 to 20 years and think how crazy we were not to have been doing this across the board much sooner."
Aaron Goodarzi is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine in the departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Oncology. He is a member of the university’s Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and Robson DNA Science centre. He holds the Canada Research Chair for Genome Damage and Instability Disease.