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Study finds one in eight Calgary homes exceeds Health Canada's acceptable radon level

Cumming School of Medicine researchers conduct largest southern Alberta radon gas study to date
Researchers Fintan Stanley, left, and Aaron Goodarzi tested radon levels in more than 2,300 Calgary and area homes, and recently published the study's results. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

University of Calgary researchers Fintan Stanley, left, and Aaron Goodarzi tested radon levels in more than 2,300 Calgary and area homes, and recently published the study's results. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

Fintan Stanley was the first author on a study that looked at radon levels in Calgary area homes.  In this photo he .....

Fintan Stanley was the first author on a study that looked at radon levels in Calgary area homes. These are pictures of the DNA of human lung cells exposed to high linear energy transfer radiation, the same type of radiation emitted by radon. The green stripes indicate the "swathe of genetic destruction" caused by the radiation as it passed through the DNA of cell.  

Radon is a colourless, odourless, radioactive gas that has been linked to lung cancer. Now, researchers at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine have proven radon is prevalent throughout southern Alberta and in Calgary area homes.

Undertaking one of the largest Canadian municipal studies to date, Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, and his team tested radon levels in more than 2,300 Calgary and area homes. The results show that there is no unaffected neighbourhood. The study is published in today’s CMAJ Open.

"This work demonstrates that radon is a genuine and growing public health concern in southern Alberta,” says Goodarzi, an assistant professor in the departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Oncology, and a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute. “Radon is a known carcinogen. The good news is that the risk is easily remediated, and we’ve been able to prove that through the course of the study."

Several types of homes tested for 90 days

Homes including condominiums, duplexes, townhouses and single family dwellings were tested for 90 days. Testing for this length of time provides the most accurate readings. In homes where radon exceeded Health Canada’s acceptable levels, remediation was recommended. Once the remediation was complete, the homes were tested a second time — and in all cases, the gas level was returned to a non-hazardous level.

"The results showed radon gas levels in my home were in the hazardous range," says Bob McAuley, a southwest Calgary homeowner and participant in the research study. "We had remediation done and now tests confirm we are in a safe range. “We have kids. We spend a lot of time indoors. I want it to be safe. No one in my family smokes. I’ve read that radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Taking this risk away was well worth it."

One in eight homes found to contain radon exceeding Health Canada guidelines 

Radon levels greater than Health Canada’s acceptable limits (of 200 Bq/m3) for the naturally occurring but cancer-causing gas were detected in all areas, with one in eight containing dangerously high radon levels between 200 and an astounding 3,441 Bq/m3. The World Health Organization estimates that the relative lifetime risk of lung cancer increases by 16 per cent for every 100 Bq/m3 of chronic radon exposure. Surprisingly, the scientists found that newer homes, built within the past 25 years, contained substantially higher radon gas levels compared to older homes.

"I would encourage everyone living in southern Alberta to consider testing their homes for radon gas, you can’t see it, or smell it, you don’t know you’re breathing it in unless you test for it," says Fintan Stanley, a PhD student and first author of the study.

Researchers recommend testing homes during winter months

The researchers and Health Canada recommend testing your home during the winter heating months of October to April, as that’s when we spend the most time indoors, and when our homes are sealed up tight to keep the warm air in.

This study and Goodarzi’s work is supported by the Robson DNA Science Centre endowment and through the federal government’s Canada Research Chair program.