Health

Radon: Leona Aglukkaq Ignites Anxiety with Misinformation

By Ted Mitchell
Published December 08, 2010

I was just tuning out one of those government public service statements that occasionally fill CBC airwaves when something insanely irresponsible caught my ear.

Federal Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq was announcing that Radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer and that all Canadians should test their homes for radon gas.

WTF? You are kidding me! Please don't incite anxiety over this! Hundreds of people are now going to ask their physicians about Radon, and they won't get any useful answers.

Radon is indeed the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking (including second hand smoke). But we're talking at most 10% where lung cancer has anything to do with Radon, and most of these cases are also smokers. There is a strongly synergistic effect of Radon and smoking in causing cancer, just like with asbestos and smoking.

Now go to Health Canada to find out something about Radon. Note Health Canada's emphasis that the only way to find out if your family is at risk is to test your home. This is unrealistic and completely irresponsible advice.

The first question you should ask yourself is 'am I at risk'? Health Canada cannot help you with the answer. In fact, I was recently mailed a package of Radon information sheets to pass out to patients.

As a physician, I'm no further ahead than you are in helping you answer this critical question. Testing every dwelling is insanely expensive, as well as mostly unnecessary if the government had any clue of where to focus their resources.

The basic necessity is a detailed map of Canada that would list areas of high radon so that people in these areas could alert themselves to the risk and test appropriately. Conversely, in a low Radon area, you don't have to worry. Unlike in the US where Radon maps are widely available, this does not exist for Canada.

The best they can do is list low, medium and high Radon incidence by province. Oh, great. So Hamilton and Thunder Bay data are grouped together, thanks for that, not very useful.

There is a map of Canada available (PDF) from an independent consultant that gives a rough idea of Radon, but half the country has no data and the scale is really not helpful for most areas.

Or this article: A preliminary radon map for Canada according to health region. - Chen J - Radiat Prot Dosimetry - 01-JAN-2008; 130(1): 92-4, which if I had two hours to kill might be available at the McMaster library. Shouldn't this be more easily available?

As for testing, you could go to Home Depot or Canadian Tire, where they have, oh wait, sorry, you can't buy a radon kit from them. Home Hardware however, does have a Radon kit available, but don't count on this being in stock for long if you really need one.

Radon is not a new problem; it has been recognized as a health risk for decades. So our government has finally decided to act in gathering some information on it, better late than never. But I have to assume there is some information already in existence that is not easily available and therefore of no use to you or your doctor.

What Health Canada needs to do is to post this info as they gather it, so that if you click on this map, it will tell how many residences have been tested and what levels they found.

If you know that you are in a low, medium or high Radon area, you can act appropriately: for low areas, worry about something else more important, for medium, consider testing if you are a smoker, for high, everyone should test.

It appears that the highly populated areas of Southern Ontario are not at much risk. But my source of that info is a private consultant's 1 cm grainy map of counties. We ask for our government to responsibly inform and protect us without inciting anxiety, and so far for Radon, they are failing badly on all counts.

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Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.

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By d.knox (registered) | Posted December 08, 2010 at 22:23:44

I was unable to find the article you referenced (issue 130(1) is for June, not January, but still didn't contain the article). Chen did publish an article in the July 2008 issue which had a map. Not particularly helpful; the 37 test sites were taken in a straight-ish line from Ottawa to Sarnia and therefore don't address Hamilton...

Chen's conclusion:

Except for the city of Toronto, information on indoor radon concentrations is generally unknown for most areas in southern Ontario. Since radon in soil is the main source of radon in homes, measurements of soil gas radon concentrations were conducted to assess the natural background variation in radon potentials across Southern Ontario. Results from this study indicate that radon risk could be high in some areas of Southern Ontario.

I'd say put this worry on the back burner. Best to avoid the packed-earth floor lifestyle trend though. I'm much more worried about mortality getting me. Is there a test for that?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 08, 2010 at 23:02:29

Radon gas is a major source of cancer, just like Volcanoes and other natural processes spew far more radiation into the air than nuclear bombs and reactors. Simple geological/biological facts, but nothing to be really worried about. But why add to it?

Cigarette smoking puts your risk factors for everything from inactivity to asbestos through the roof. There are even those who argue that radioactive phosphate fertilizers play a role (often made from crushed rock from uranium mining areas etc). True or not, it's one of those internet pseudoscience factoids makes great cocktail party conversation.

There are very easy ways to cut cancer risk - eating well, exercising, sunblock, not smoking, and not putting known carcinogens into our food, air, water and ground.

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By wangell (anonymous) | Posted December 09, 2010 at 20:48:58

I have had 25 years experiences researching and teaching on radon detection and radon risk reduction. The problem with a map of radon probability is that it totally useless to determine whether a householder should or should not test. Several houses, apartments, or school classrooms next to each other can have widely differing radon concentrations. The health risk of indoor radon is one of the is one of the most thoroughly documented risk we face. The risk of dying from exposure to radon in the home is about 70 times greater that that of accidental carbon monoxide exposure in the home. Everyone should test their home. wangell@umn.edu

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted December 10, 2010 at 00:11:25

@wangell

The problem with a map of radon probability is that it totally useless to determine whether a householder should or should not test.

This I cannot believe, as it implies that radon distribution is completely random.

Several houses, apartments, or school classrooms next to each other can have widely differing radon concentrations.

I have heard that this is true, owing to differences in soil, basement permeability and ventilation. But in areas with low soil radon concentrations, can you find high radon dwellings? This would mean a) a significant radon soil concentration (from what exactly? imported uranium tailings for basement foundation?) and b) very porous basement and c) tight air envelope. All three together seem highly improbable in a generally low radon area.

If anyone has statistics and explanations that say otherwise please post them!

The risk of dying from exposure to radon in the home is about 70 times greater that that of accidental carbon monoxide exposure in the home. Everyone should test their home.

If this number is true, and it may be, then why do the two largest big box hardware stores in Canada stock hundreds of thousands of CO detectors, but zero radon detectors? just asking. The concept of triage would say testing everything is unwise advice, given limited resources.

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By radonrisk (anonymous) | Posted December 10, 2010 at 08:25:35

Yes, homes with high levels or radon can be found anywhere, areas that are know to be 'radon rich' and those that are considered low level areas. That is the challenge with radon and that is why the only way to know is to test. Long term radon detectors are easily available in Canada - Home Depot, Home Hardware and Walmart sell them and a number of the Canadian Lung Associations also sell kits.

Ask anyone from the EPA about the radon map that they have published and they will tell you that it has been a detriment to effectively protecting US citizens from the risk of radon b/c unless they live in the 'red' zone they don't test ..

It is true that the risk from exposure to radon is significantly higher for smokers than non-smokers - the population risk of developing lung cancer has been estimated at 1 in 20 for non-smokers and 1 in 3 for smokers who are exposed to high levels of radon for a long period of time.

The choice is yours but here's how I look at it - the risk from long term exposure to high levels of radon is equivalent to the risk of accidental death from car accidents, drowning and fires. I wear my seat belt (despite the fact that the likelihood that I will get in a car accident is very small) and use lifejackets on my kids when boating (despite the fact that the likelihood that we will get in a an accident where they are needed is very low) . It cost me about $50 to test my home and now I know that I am not increasing my or my kids chances of getting lung cancer - easy.

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By Hunter (anonymous) | Posted December 10, 2010 at 08:47:19

Hi,

I heard that report as well and got a kit from Home Depot. Thay have two different kinds, short term and long term.

Hunter

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted December 10, 2010 at 10:33:10

Before throwing around statistics, you have to take them with a grain of salt. The best way to do that is PYLL - potential years of life lost. For example, a man dying from lung cancer at age 63 (like my father) would have had a life expectancy of 78 years. His death has a weight of 15 years of life lost. Conversely, a 17 year old who dies in a MVC loses 61 years of life expectancy, so the PYLL weighting is 4.1 times greater. If average age at death is dissimilar, you are talking apples and oranges and should not compare these statistics without some kind of correction factor.

Thanks for the info on Home depot Canada - no products for radon are listed on their website, but there are 19 different smoke/CO detectors.

Seems to be no real evidence presented yet as to if and how high radon can be found spuriously in a low radon area, and what kind of incidence we are talking about.

With 12.5 million households in Canada, testing once for radon at $50 means $625 million. And realistically, poor households are not going to do it.

From a public/preventive health perspective, that is a fail. If this is as unpredictable and important as the health minister states, it should be covered like flu shots, and/or required by insurance companies. Either would mean economies of scale and bring the cost way down.

Lung cancer treatment in Canada cost $328 million in 1988, likely a lot more now than just the inflation adjustment.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 10, 2010 at 11:33:47

The economics you mention, Ted, only make a stronger case for a collaborative approach in which one detector can take readings at many homes, and warn people when they should be installing longer-term devices. It's like lead pipes - not the end of the world, just something to take reasonable measures against.

If there's a reason for highly varying amounts of radon, I'd suspect it has something to do with tight building envelopes. All sorts of nasty toxins and allergens get concentrated in "well insulated" homes that don't breathe. That leads to things like sick building syndrome. It's a shortcut to more "green" and "efficient" housing, and it isn't a good one. Polyurethane spray foam may be cheap and easy, but it isn't a substitute for good design or construction.

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By TB (registered) - website | Posted December 11, 2010 at 07:53:25

@undustrial

On the contrary - the more a house "breathes" the more susceptible it is to radon gas infiltration.

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