Most of us know about carbon monoxide, an odorless, colourless gas that occurs naturally in homes and buildings and causes a threat to our health. But how many of us know about radon? It is also an undetectable, naturally-occurring gas that is more common than many people realize.

New data from a University of Calgary research study suggests that one in five homes are higher than the maximum acceptable limit, a number that is quite high and very surprising. Read this Calgary Herald article for more details on the study.

Here is a basic overview of radon gas – what it is, where it’s found, what its possible health effects are and how you can protect your home and family. 

What is radon?
Radon is a naturally occurring gas that is formed when a radioactive element, such as uranium, breaks down. It is colourless, odorless, and tasteless and is present in large quantities in the Canadian Prairies. When radon gas is formed it travels to other places via air and water. It can seep into homes through cracks in the foundation or floor and through floor drains and sump pumps.

Where can radon be found?
Radon is a gas; it travels freely.  It is found in every country throughout the world, and in Canada radon levels have been measured in every province, but are particularly high in Alberta, Saskatchewan, northern regions and parts of the east coast.  Radon levels can vary by region, city, town, or even neighborhood, depending on the composition of rocks and soil commonly found in the area. 

Basements and crawl spaces are where the highest concentrations of radon are usually found. This is because these areas are closest to the rocks or soil that are the source of the radon.  As a result, people who spend more time in basement-level rooms in their homes or offices may have higher levels of exposure. 

How does radon affect you? 
Radon gas breaks down into solid radioactive elements called radon progeny.  These can lodge in the linings of your lungs. As these elements break down, they emit radiation that can damage lung tissue and possibly cause lung cancer in the future. 

There are not any short-term effects, such as coughing, trouble breathing or other respiratory symptoms from radon exposure, but the long-term effects can be serious. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, in Canada at about 16 per cent of cases and 1,900 deaths a year. However, it’s also important to note that not everyone exposed to high levels of radon will develop lung cancer during their lifetime. 

How are we exposed to radon?
Most radon exposure occurs in homes and buildings, such as offices and schools.  The gas enters buildings through cracks in foundations and floors, areas around wires, pumps or pipes, construction joints and other openings. 

Small amounts of radon can also move from water into the air, where it can be inhaled, but this is not a significant contributor to exposure.  Certain types of building materials are a bigger risk, especially those made from natural substances, such as concrete and wallboard.  While many building materials emit low levels of radon, this is not always the case. 

How do you know what the radon level is in your home?
If you’re worried about radon levels in your home, the first step is to test for the gas.  You can test levels yourself by purchasing a home detection kit.  Detection kits are available from some home improvement retailers, over the internet or by phone. Contact Health Canada’s Radiation Protection Bureau at [email protected] or 613-946-6384. If you prefer, you can hire a professional radon expert or company to test the radon levels in your home. Lists of certified Canadian measurement and mitigation professionals are available through the  Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program.

What should you do if radon levels are high in your home?
Information about reducing radon levels in your home is available here:

For more information:
While many people are not familiar with radon, it can be a very real risk – and even a dangerous threat – to the long-term health of your family.  To learn more, visit the Health Canada Radiation Protection Bureau website for comprehensive information, guidance, pamphlets, referrals and other valuable resources about this important topic.
Friday January 08, 2021