A bill to establish a legal framework making radon testing mandatory in certain cases continues to collect dust on the shelf.
Bill 209, the Radon Awareness and Testing Act, had bipartisan support under the previous provincial government and received royal assent, but was never proclaimed into law.
“Alberta Health continues to monitor the evidence around radon and will bring forward a recommendation for mandatory testing if required,” said Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan.
“But at present, we feel there is adequate awareness and that existing supports for voluntary testing are sufficient to ensure safety,” McMillan added.
Once a bill has received royal assent, he said the act essentially just sits awaiting proclamation.
“There is no expiry in this legislation,” he said, explaining some bills do have timelines built in.
In B.C., a similar legal framework was previously proclaimed, and childcare facilities, for example, must have their premise tested for radon gas. If levels read above Health Canada standards, a mitigation system must be installed before being able to open the building’s doors to the public.
“In Alberta, school boards and childcare facilities can arrange to have radon testing done in their schools, either as part of their regular maintenance reviews, or by arranging testing with a private company,” said McMillan.
“Alberta’s Building Code requires that new homes and schools be built so that radon mitigation systems, such as ventilators or fans, can be more easily installed.”
The only way to determine whether radon is present in a building — the gas accumulates largely in a structure’s basement — is by obtaining a testing kit, which can be purchased at hardware stores or through contractors, who can also install ventilation systems.
Radon, a colourless and odourless radioactive gas, is a bigger cause for concern in rural areas like Sundre, say experts, because the largely gravel ground is so porous there is a higher propensity for the gas to seep through into basements of any structure.
Dr. Aaron Goodarzi, who is a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine, says exposure to higher levels of radon over extended durations can induce a type of cancer that is difficult to treat.
“However, what’s easy is to determine whether you’re exposed to high levels,” Goodarzi recently said during a phone interview.
Testing is fairly easy and straightforward. In rural areas, one in six properties tested on average yield high levels, but in southern Alberta, that average is one in five. Health Canada’s maximum tolerated level is 200 becquerels, which is a unit that measures the emission of radiation per second, he said.
“We start to see a cancer risk at anything over 100,” he said.
While any readings below 100 are not associated with risks, levels between 100 and 200, and of course higher, should be cause for concern, he said, prompting efforts to mitigate, especially if there are other potential risk factors such as cigarette smoking or the presence of asbestos.
Additionally, he said children are in the long-term far more susceptible to developing health complications as a result of exposure to higher levels of radon.
“This is based on robust science,” he said.
Studies have been conducted on thousands of cancer patients as well as healthy people, and radon is an important and prevalent cause of cancer, he said.
“We absolutely know it causes cancer in humans,” he said, adding, “even animals.”
Through a citizen scientist based initiative called the Evict Radon Project — visit evictradon.org for more information — a body of data has been built from more than 16,000 houses, he said.
“We’re starting to better understand the scale of the radon issue.”
He said higher levels tend to be detected in newer properties, and rural areas also generally have higher readings than urban centres, adding efforts remain ongoing to continue accumulating more data to get a clearer picture.
“There is no area in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan that is completely free of radon,” he said.
By better understanding the issue, he said solutions can be built to address the matter proactively rather than reactively.
“Radon-induced lung cancer is something that no one should be diagnosed with,” he said, calling the illness preventable.
“Nobody’s addicted to radon.”
While humans have been aware of radon gas for more than a century, the first connection between radon and cancer in the context of people’s homes was discovered in the mid-1980s in America, and efforts to raise awareness have continued since. Radon occurs naturally in the ground, and in the Prairies, there are minerals in the earth that create the gas, he said.
“Normally, radon comes out of the ground and dilutes right away.”
But buildings, especially newer, high-efficiency structures that are less prone to drafts, can concentrate the gas to hazardous levels that would never be observed in nature, except in a deep cave or uranium mine, he said.
“We’re seeing some houses with higher levels than mines before they started ventilating them,” he said.
Plus, with winter coming, homes are about to be sealed up for months. But as the world warms, even during the summer people are often leaving windows closed to keep out wildfire smoke as well as turning up air conditioning, which keeps trapped any radon that’s finding its way into the property, he said.
No structures are immune, he said, adding schools, hospitals and workplaces are all potentially prone to radon exposure.
Since the gas is odourless and human senses cannot detect it, a psychological tendency called "optimism bias" leads many people to downplay or outright disbelieve the possible problem, he said.
While humans have harnessed radiation for good in many ways such as radiation therapies to help beat cancer, those doses and the way they’re delivered are in very controlled environments, he said.
One takeaway point to stress, he said, especially in Alberta, is Bill 209, which almost two years ago passed unanimously with bipartisan support.
“The reason they did so is it’s pretty much a no-brainer.”
But more pressure needs to be applied on the government to proclaim the act into law, he said, adding childcare facilities should have mandatory testing and if needed, mitigation measures installed.
“Our children are the most susceptible,” he said, adding he has met with people aged 30 and over who developed lung cancer due to childhood exposure.
“No child should be exposed,” he said.
“That behooves us as a society to move forward, regulate and mandate this.”
The interior of B.C. also has a major radon issue, he said, but that province’s government has taken steps to mitigate the problem. The good news, he added, is the problem is easily remedied through minor renovations that are a fraction of the cost as compared with major household expenses like replacing a roof.
“I know some smart TVs that cost more than a radon mitigation device,” he said, adding once installed, the property is set for life.
Even so, a couple of thousand dollars for some budgets can be too much, so there should be government subsidies or grant funds available, he said.
“To my knowledge there are none in Alberta,” he said.
“I would love to see in the future that this, for example, could be an expense to write off on taxes, or health and wellness spending accounts through an employer.”
While the federal government has a role to play in raising awareness, because radon comes from the ground, he said the responsibility ultimately “falls to the provinces to actually come up with their own plan.”
Having originally passed with full bipartisan support, Bill 209 should have been proclaimed by now, and Goodarzi urges the Alberta government not to delay any further.
“I would love to see that plan enacted before end of this year, or at the latest in 2020.”
John Horning, an earth scientist and member of the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists as well as a contractor who installs radon mitigation systems, said, “We’re not trying to sell fear, but just let people know about the potential. It’s preventable.”
Expressing concerns about the potential for higher levels of radon in Sundre and the surrounding area due to geology, Horning said he hopes to be proven wrong.
“I would happily eat my words,” he said.
However, that will require greater efforts to test properties, he added.
Earl Smith, a homeowner who lives just west of Sundre in the McDougal Flats area, decided in 2017 to test his house after a neighbour’s friend made a test kit available.
“We live on a gravel pit out here,” said Smith.
“We’ve never lived on ground so porous.”
So while Smith said he had always been aware of radon, he had never taken the issue too seriously until then.
The testing, he said, ended up detecting concentrations more than triple Health Canada’s maximum standard.
“We were up in the 700 units,” he said, referring to becquerels.
But after having a mitigation system installed, those levels dropped substantially, he said, adding he makes an effort to occasionally keep an eye on any changes.
“The average readings now are about 45 units,” he said, adding that has alleviated concerns in the back of his mind, especially since their grandchildren sleep in the basement when they visit.
“It’s nice to have one less thing to worry about.”
Since predicting whether a property has a radon problem is impossible, Smith “absolutely recommends” doing a test.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t.”