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.
Health Canada Radon info is not very informative, much better can be found from US sources including the EPA website.
CMHC Radon: A Guide for Canadian Homeowners. No health info but useful techniques for repairing houses with high Radon levels.
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