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What is radon and what are the risks of radon exposure?

Radon gas is a radioactive by product of uranium decay that exists naturally both inside and outside of man made structures. Certain properties of home construction can cause radon gas to concentrate to high levels inside homes. When you and your family are exposed to concentrated levels of radon gas over extended periods of time it significantly increases your chances of developing cancer, specifically lung cancer. If you combine concentrated radon exposure with other known carcinogens such as smoking it places you at even higher risk.

Is there any safe level of radon exposure?

The most widely accepted risk models present a linear correlation between radon exposure and risk. This means there is no level of exposure which is without risk, however because the gas is found at very low concentrations in natural settings the risk is extremely low. Radon is only a concern when it concentrates to high levels inside of structures such as your home, where in extreme cases it may reach levels thousands of times higher than levels found outside of your home.

My neighbour's home was tested and did not find elevated levels of radon, does that mean my home is safe too?

No. Although studies do show certain regions and neighbourhoods have higher prevalence of radon than others, radon levels can vary widely over short distances and with small variations in building structure. The only way to know if your home is safe is to have it tested.

Are children at higher risk for radon exposure than adults?

It is estimated that due to differences in lung shape, sizes and breathing rates children have higher radiation doses than do adults. Since lung cancer risk from radon exposure is based on cumulative levels, the longer you live in a household with high levels the higher your risk.

What parts of a home are at highest risk?

Generally speaking, basements have slightly higher radon levels than other parts of a home. Since radon diffuses quickly in the air and most homes in western Canada have centralized heating systems, radon levels are usually found to be similar on all levels of a home but may be marginally higher on the lowest levels. For this reason we always recommend taking readings from your basement if you spend a significant amount of time in it.


Common Misconceptions About Radon

Radon isn't a risk here

Radon gas is a naturally occurring soil gas present throughout the world. Regardless of where you live radon gas is present in some concentration dependent on the uranium deposits below your home. Certain regions may overall have lower levels but even in such areas unusual deposits can exist. Even adjacent houses can have drastically different readings. The only way to know your risk is to test.

I bought a test a few years ago and my test was low, I’m fine.

Testing for radon is a great first step, it’s important however to make sure you follow a few important points. Health Canada recommends the use of a long- term test kit to obtain radon measurement readings over a minimum of 3 winter months at the lowest lived-in level of the home. Make sure the test type which you purchase is approved by Health Canada is from a reputable company with a strict quality control policy to ensure accuracy of readings. Long term testing should be repeated every 5 years to account for ground changes. Likewise if you already have a radon mitigation system installed you should do repeated tested at least once every other year to insure the system remains safe and functional.

Radon poses no substantial risk to my health. I am exposed to as much radiation from eating bananas and kidney beans as breathing radon.

This is a debunked myth, that we still hear from time to time and as such is worth spending a little time on. It is true that Bananas and kidney beans, as well as other common produce like potatoes, nuts and sunflower seeds, often contain low amounts of radioactive potassium and/or radium however comparing cancer risk from consuming any of these products to risk from breathing radon it is a completely false equivalency and any notion of "equivalent banana dose" is flawed concept that has been debunked by scientific studies [1][2].

When comparing risk from radioactive potassium or radium to breathing radon, the first and most important thing to note is that the danger from radon is only when it is breathed in and sensitive lung cells are subject to direct alpha radiation. Radiation from radon outside of the lungs posses no significant threat to your health, there is for example never been found to be a correlation with skin cancer and high radon levels. Therefore assuming you are eating bananas and not breathing them, comparing risk is without merit.

Secondly, the amounts of radiation exposure from eating a banana is simply not equivalent to exposure from a house with high radon levels and it is flawed logic that has taken some to this conclusion. If you are comparing radiation from potassium in bananas to radon in the air, you are comparing something with a half life of 1.25 billion years to something with a half life of only only a few days. When accounting for the half life of radioactive potassium it has been suggested that eating one banana is correlated to 0.1 microSv of radiation, which means even at face value you'd have to eat a lot of bananas to equate to radiation from a high radon household. However in reality the dose from eating a banana is not cumulative because the amount of potassium in the human body remains relatively constant throughout ones lifetime and excess potassium is not absorbed, whereas dose from breathing in radon is cumulative, therefore the actual dose from consuming a banana is much less.
If you remain unconvinced of the risk of radon we suggest you check out the scientific literature and studies from our friends at the lung association and from Health Canada and the EPA and review the numerous international cohort studies confirming the causality.

Radon is only problem in new/old homes.

Radon gas can enter your home regardless of its age or structure type. Regardless of how new or well-built your home is radon have unacceptable levels of radon. New homes built after 1992 have a higher overall chance of high radon due in part to, bigger overall size footprint, less use of concrete in new home construction, airtight seals, and a lower overall quality of aggregates available for use.

My home tested below the 200Bq/m3 Health Canada guidelines for radon exposure therefore my home does not present a risk.

Health Canada recommends action be taken to lower radon levels for homes measuring above 200Bq/m3 within two years and one year for homes measuring over 600Bq/m3. World Health Organization states that action should be taken for homes measuring over 100Bq/m3 with reference level not to exceed 300Bq/m3. Radon gas exposure is cumulative. The less radon gas you are exposed to the better, if at all possible reduce your radon gas levels to as low as possible.

My builder installed a radon pipe in my new home, my home is protected from high radon gas levels.

The National Building Code recently changed to adopt radon-mitigation preventative measures in new home construction. The radon pipe you see in the basement of your home is the start of a passive system. If installed correctly an air barrier has been included and building envelope sealed. The protruding pipe is accessible for future radon mitigation system installation, if needed. While benecial, the system in place is non-operational and many are not installed correctly. Please contact us should you have questions about your home’s radon pipe.

I've lived in my home for years and I’ve never had any problems, I don’t need to test for radon.

There are no warning signs or symptoms of radon exposure. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Risk of lung cancer increases by 16% per every 100Bq/m3 . It’s important to take preemptive action to reduce these risks as much as possible.

If my home has high level of radon I will never be able to sell it.

Radon awareness is increasing. While consumers are becoming more educated surrounding radon exposure and its health hazards, mitigation is easy and affordable. Many realtors have found the presence of a radon mitigation system to be a positive to buyers. Remember - every home can be mitigated to safe radon levels. A home with a active radon mitigation system is much safer than a untested home, and in addition there may be other benefits to a radon system.


References
[1] Maggie Koerth-Baker (Aug 27, 2010). "Bananas are radioactive—But they aren't a good way to explain radiation exposure". (Accessed 25 May 2011). Attributes the title statement to Geoff Meggitt, former UK Atomic Energy Authority.
[2] Eisenbud, Merril; Gesell, Thomas F. (1997). Environmental radioactivity: from natural, industrial, and military sources. Academic Press. pp. 171–172. ISBN 978-0-12-235154-9. It is important to recognize that the potassium content of the body is under strict homeostatic control and is not influenced by variations in environmental levels. For this reason, the dose from 40K in the body is constant.