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An Unseen Risk: The Rising Threat of Radon in Rural Alberta Homes

The presence of radon in rural homes is heightened due to groundwater wells, resulting in rural Albertans being exposed to radon levels 30 percent higher than their urban counterparts

Part of being a parent is taking care of your family. 

But that is easier said than done when you are up against an invisible threat.

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi (right) and Henk de Haan stand beside a groundwater well outside of de Haan’s home near Okotoks | Jeff McIntosh | The Canadian Press | CBC News

For five years, an unseen menace roamed freely in Henk de Haan’s home near Okotoks, southwest of Calgary. 

De Haan and his family slept blissfully, unaware of the danger in their basement, until his friend suggested he check for radon

“It was after my home was built and occupied, and my children had been sleeping in the basement, that I decided to test my home and my radon levels were dangerous,” said de Haan.

To de Haan’s surprise, radon levels in his house were off the charts. 

Health Canada considers 200 becquerels per cubic metre, or less radon, in a home to be safe. 

The air measured in de Haan’s home read 400 becquerels per cubic metre.

What Is Radon?

Radon is a harmful radioactive gas created from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rock. 

A map of Canada showing which regions should be most concerned about radon due to geography. Most of Alberta has high radon hazard potential | Radon Environmental Management Crop | HPAC

Uranium is the stuff they use to fuel nuclear power plants. 

So, what is a radioactive substance like uranium doing in a rural community? Believe it or not, uranium is almost 500 times more common than gold.

Uranium is found almost anywhere, including in rock, soil, groundwater, and our bodies. 

Thankfully, uranium isn’t’ too dangerous because it gives off tiny amounts of radiation. 

But when uranium breaks down into radon, you have a problem. Not only is radon dangerous, but it is also invisible, odourless, and tasteless. 

The release of radon occurs naturally in the environment at levels that cause no immediate effects. However, exposure to increased levels of radon can be dangerous. 

The most common effect of exposure to increased levels of radon is lung cancer, which may take years to develop. 

How Does Radon Enter Homes?

As radon rises through the soil, it can enter through cracks or windows and usually enters homes through low spaces like basements. 

A picture showing how many ways radon can enter a home  Ottawa Public Health
A picture showing how many ways radon can enter a home | Ottawa Public Health

Radon can also spread through groundwater and enter through piping, sump pumps, or drains. 

In de Haan’s case, the radon likely spread through a nearby groundwater well but not the water itself.

A study conducted by University of Calgary researchers found a link between radon in rural homes based on how close they are to a drilled groundwater well.

Aaron Goodarzi, the principal investigator and Associate Professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, says the air, not the water around groundwater wells is to blame. 

“The air was allowing deep underground radon to reach the surface much more quickly…the houses in rural communities then have that much more radon to draw inside,” said Goodarzi.

Goodarzi compared the spread of radon through groundwater wells to a drinking straw, where radon can travel to the surface more easily than usual. 

“We know that methane gas bubbles up around the outside of some oil and gas wells. This caused us to wonder if…radon gas migration might also be occurring along water wells,” he explained.

An Invisible Danger

Radon might be invisible, but it should not be ignored. 

Goodarzi’s study involved over 42,000 households across Canada.

A picture showing how methane can leak from a well and reach the surface | ResearchGate

On average, people in rural communities were exposed to 30 percent more radon than those in urban centres.

Considering radon is the second leading cause of lung cancers around the world, the gas is nothing to scoff at. 

The radioactive gas releases a dangerous type of radiation called alpha radiation

Unlike harmless X-rays, alpha radiation is far more damaging to our DNA and creates mutations in our lung cells that cause cancer.

“It should really flag this as an issue for any policymakers because reducing our future burden of cancer, especially lung cancer, which is expensive to treat and very prevalent, is one of the most effective things we can do,” said Goodarzi.

De Haan’s wife is a breast cancer survivor and has had a double mastectomy. His children sleep in his basement.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself knowing that radon is a potential risk, a high lung cancer risk and not do something about it,” said de Haan.

After discovering high radon levels in his home, de Haan installed a radon mitigation system that removes radon from his home and releases it safely outside. 

Alpha radiation has the least penetrative power and can be stopped by paper. However, it is also the most deadly type of radiation  TEL Gurus
Alpha radiation has the least penetrative power and can be stopped by paper. However, it is also the most deadly type of radiation | TEL Gurus

Policy To Protect

In November 2015, Alberta introduced new building requirements to protect new homes from radon. 

An example of a radon testing kit that can be purchased online via Amazon  Amazon
An example of a radon testing kit that can be purchased online via Amazon | Amazon

The new requirements were put in place to minimize radon entry into homes. One requirement is a radon mitigation rough-in pipe that makes it easy to install a radon mitigation system. 

The province recommends that all homes be tested for radon and suggests hiring a qualified tester or using a do-it-yourself kit. 

Radon testing kits can be bought online or from home improvement stores. 

Some charities like Alberta Lung offer testing kits for free via local libraries. 

Outside Alberta, the City of Vaudreuil-Dorion in Quebec will reimburse half the cost of the radon mitigation system cost.

Our province should adopt a similar program in rural communities, which are at greater risk of radon exposure than urban centres. 

If not for his friend, de Haan may have never learned of the radon in his house. 

At the very least, test your home for radon and tell your friends, family, and neighbours to do the same because most of Alberta has high radon levels.

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