In Canada, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer but what is radon and what can public health do about it?
Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when uranium and soils break down. During this process, radon decays into radioactive alpha particles.
When inhaled, this radiation can break DNA bonds of cells inside the lungs. As DNA damage increases, the risk of cancer also increases. Canadian statistics suggest that radon induced lung cancer represents 16% of all lung cancers. 3200 Canadians die annually from radon exposure. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that a hundred and eighty-nine thousand people die each year a preventable, radon-induced lung cancer.
These deaths are preventable because of how people are exposed to radon. When radon is released from the ground to outdoor air, it's diluted and, therefore, not harmful. But, when radon enters buildings, it can accumulate to levels that pose risks. As a result, radon is a concern for indoor environments such as homes, schools, childcare centers and workplaces.
Radon gas enters these buildings through cracks in the foundation and walls. The risk of exposure may be getting worse. New builds are more efficient and tightly sealed allowing for radon to accumulate to higher levels than in older homes.
If you're an environmental health officer, public health inspector, or other health professional, there are ways you can help protect people's health. First, not many people know about radon. On average, fewer than 33 percent of Canadian households are able to correctly describe radon gas. Those numbers have been going up over time but more awareness is needed. Second, you can support practices and policies that reduce radon exposure such as radon testing and the use of mitigation strategies. For example, some provinces have instituted mandatory radon testing in child care facilities and schools. You can help by engaging your jurisdiction in these kinds of proactive management strategies. Third, public health professionals have the ability to actively conduct testing campaigns. These campaigns can target landowners in communities: particularly helpful in high radon regions.
A critical part of the solution involves engaging with stakeholders outside of public health. For example, we can collaborate with groups that develop building codes and the people that implement and enforce these codes. We can negotiate for permits that take radon into account and coordinate with land use planning groups when it comes to building new homes and facilities.
Radon is not a new problem but it is a serious environmental health risk. Regardless of your role in public health, there are opportunities to get involved. Everyone can play a role in reducing cancer rates.
For more information on radon, check out our Radon Resources Page.