Manitoba experts point to the need for more awareness on radon and its dangers

It’s described as a naturally occurring invisible gas, with no taste or smell.

For one Winnipeg woman fearing rising levels of that gas, there was only one option left — to install a radon mitigation system in her basement.

As the executive director of the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, Pam Warkentin is familiar with the risks of radon. Learning more about it, she said, is important — especially considering that Manitoba is the second leading province with homes consisting of radon levels higher than Health Canada’s guidelines.

“One spring, after we had a drought here in Manitoba… my levels just started going up,” said Warkentin. “We saw the levels start to go up over the course of a month. We had a mitigation system installed and now it works effectively.”

She noted that 16 per cent of lung cancers in the country are linked to radon. An exposure to the gas, she added, increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

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Health Canada, on its website, states that the gas is the leading cause of such cancer in people who don’t smoke. It defines radon as a radioactive gas that comes from “the breakdown of uranium in soil and rock.” Outdoors, the gas is not a concern. In enclosed spaces like homes, however, Health Canada states that it can accumulate to high levels and become a risk to individual health.

Neil Johnston, president and CEO of the Manitoba Lung Association, said a large segment of the population still does not know what radon is. And it’s concerning, he said, because Manitoba is one of the hotspots.

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About 200 Manitobans are diagnosed with lung cancer every year, said Johnston. According to him, the prevalence of the gas is such that one in four homes in the province has high levels of it.

“Radon gas is radioactive. It shoots off these high energy particles through the air… like little arrows,” said Johnston. “That radiation pings into one of the lung cells. When you inhale it in, it hits the lung cells, and it causes a mutation in the DNA.”

Health Canada’s website further states that to be sure of the radon level in a house, one should test for it. Current federal guidelines require homes to have radon levels under 200 becquerels per cubic metre.

According to Warkentin, that number is a measurement of radioactivity in the air caused by the gas. With November being radon action month, she advised getting a test done.

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Once a test is done, the next step would be to bring the levels down.

“A radon mitigation system is the most effective way to reduce levels. We’ve done research on it to show that it can reduce quite high levels to really low levels,” said Warkentin.

“It’s a system where… the pipe goes into our homes, goes in through the slab of the home, into the sub slab space, and provides a pathway for the gas to go from beneath our homes — up and out.”

Breaking down the numbers, Warkentin said a single-use testing kit could cost $60, along with any additional costs to ship tests back to a lab. The mitigation system in her house, she said, costs about $3,000 in the province.

with files from Global’s Rosanna Hempel

Click to play video: 'Health Canada encouraging Manitobans to test homes for radon'

Health Canada encouraging Manitobans to test homes for radon

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