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Canadian homeowners need to know about the cancer risk in their basements

Tuesday, April 17th 2012 9:53:21am

Media Release

Can you name the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers in Canada?

(Toronto, ON April 17, 2012) A new study, The Radon Challenge: Building Awareness and Encouraging Action by The Homeowner Protection Centre (HPC) suggests that only about 8% of Canadians can name radon as the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers in Canada, despite Health Canada efforts to raise awareness.

Found in every Canadian province and territory, radon is a colourless, odourless, radioactive gas that can seep from surrounding soil into houses (in fact, into all types of buildings including schools and hospitals). Health Canada suggests that it accounts for approximately 10% of all lung cancers across the country, second only to tobacco smoke.  

Few Canadians have tested their homes for the carcinogen and fewer still have taken the relatively inexpensive steps to radon-proof their homes. These were the conclusions of the recently completed The Radon Challenge study, undertaken by the HPC, a not-for-profit committed to improving housing and housing-related services across Canada.

"Homeowners have the ability to protect their families from radon with affordable solutions, but they can't take action if they're not aware," stated Michael Lio, Executive Director of the Homeowner Protection Centre.  

Mr. Lio continued, "Radon gas test kits are commonly available at Canadian hardware stores and in most cases cost less than $50.  Testing your home is the first step in protecting your family's health."

Province-wide testing of buildings began in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 2009.  In 2010, Quebec began radon testing in its schools.  Currently, Ontario has no policy in place but a Private Member's Bill (Radon Awareness and Protection Act - 2012 Bill 36), first introduced in 2011 and again on February 23, 2012 by MPP Reza Moridi, is an attempt to address this.

In 2007, Health Canada lowered the recommended guideline for indoor radon levels by 75% to 200 Bq/m3.  Five years later, Canadians are still largely unaware of this harmful gas.  Michael Lio reports that, "Five years after Health Canada lowered the radon standard, there is still no national forum to coordinate efforts across provinces and territories. We need a national strategy. Health Canada must take the lead by bringing all stakeholders together to coordinate activities."

The low level of awareness among Canadians suggests that the current approaches are not working.  What is clear from the Homeowner Protection Centre’s study is that the time to act is now.  Waiting to act is harming Canadians. Radon induced lung cancers continue to take lives.  The time for decisive and coordinated nation-wide action is now.

For more information, visit: http://www.homeownerprotection.ca

The Homeowner Protection Centre (HPC) received funding from Industry Canada's Contributions Program for Non-profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations to undertake this research.  The views expressed in the report are not necessarily those of Industry Canada or the Government of Canada.


To arrange interviews please contact Michael Zupanic, Environmental Communication Options, 416-972-7401, mzupanic@ecostrategy.ca

The Homeowner Protection Centre was established to advocate for homeowners and their important issues. It is a network of homeowners, builders, renovators, and home product and service suppliers who are committed to improving housing and housing-related services across Canada. The HPC is not-for-profit, and is supported through memberships and donations by homeowners and companies.   Michael Lio, founder of the Homeowner Protection Centre, has represented consumers for almost 25 years on numerous boards, councils and committees.


The Radon Challenge:
Building Awareness and Encouraging Action

Radon is a colourless, odourless, radioactive gas that is associated with 10% of lung cancer deaths in Canada. Radon is released from the soil, and is found outdoors and indoors in all types of buildings. The World Health Organization classifies radon as a carcinogen, and ranks it as the second leading cause of lung cancer after tobacco, and the first cause among non-smokers [16]. On June 9, 2007, Health Canada lowered its recommended guideline for indoor radon levels from 800 Bq/m3 to 200 Bq/m3. This has prompted an examination of the radon issue in Canada.

During this radon examination, there has not yet been a study that has focused on radon from the perspective of consumers and homeowners where concerns about health protection and barriers to testing and remediation are detailed. In fact, there is no voice at the table that represents a consumer interest.

The Homeowner Protection Centre has completed a report examining radon from the consumer perspective, analyzing whether homeowners are aware, what they need to know, and how they should be told to build concern. The objective of this report is to add to research previously conducted on the health effects of radon by providing recommendations on the next steps for government towards increased awareness, the testing of all buildings in Canada, the reduction of high radon levels where necessary, and improved health outcomes for Canadians.

This report consists of a literature review, a series of interviews from key informants categorized in a Catalogue of Activities, the results on a nationwide omnibus survey, and the results of a focus group which followed up with the survey results.

The main theme that emerged from the key informant interviews was a lack of coordination between the three levels of government, stakeholders, and organizations. Overall, it seems they have started to think about radon, and begun to take actions, but efforts are at very early stages, and there is a lot of work to be done. Health Canada needs to take a leadership role, and must bring stakeholders together in a national radon advisory committee that meets regularly to provide input on the national strategy, coordinate activities, align messages and timing for public outreach, and evaluate progress against the radon plan’s strategic objectives. Health Canada should carefully consider the USA Federal Action Plan as a model for Canada [97]. This plan, created in June 2011, has clear, step-by-step goals with associated deadlines, and clearly lists the role of each Federal organization and the actions they will accomplish within the next four years [97].  

A national strategy is required with clear performance metrics. Government must measure the number of houses which have been tested and which have had radon levels reduced, and the reduced radon concentration in these houses. These are the performance metrics that matter.  Reporting on the number of government activities that have been initiated or even the awareness level among Canadians fails to address the extent to which Canadians are acting and reducing their exposure to radon.  

Governments and others have suggested additional research is required before any action can be taken. Many point to the need to wait until the Health Canada research is completed. What is clear from this research is that there is no good reason to delay on taking action. In fact, waiting to act is harming Canadians. Waiting for the next research report to be completed means some Canadians will needlessly be exposed to radiation that induces lung cancer.

The results of the study's survey show that there is a fundamental lack of awareness of radon, with 8% of the surveyed homeowners being aware. Homeowners cannot take action if they are unaware. This also implies that the information currently available for homeowners is not reaching a significant number people. The current social marketing techniques employed by Health Canada and other organizations are not working.

The study's focus group confirmed a lack of knowledge of radon. It also confirmed many of the suspected reasons for the apathy towards testing and remediation: worry about impact on the value and marketability of their home; unaware or won't remember; measuring against other risks; and (especially) perceived costs. Radon is a complicated issue, but once a public campaign is launched, resources and infrastructure must be in place to effectively address homeowner questions and concerns. The focus group also expressed a desire for more government communication.

Homeowners have the ability to protect their families from radon with relatively affordable solutions. They cannot take action, however, if they are unaware. Government coordinated social marketing is the catalyst to support the voluntary actions of homeowners. The information currently available for homeowners is of high quality, but the message is not getting out. Doing more of the same is not likely to work, nor yield better awareness results.  Health Canada and partnering organizations need to collaborate, with a unified approach similar to the USA, to deliver aligned messages to Canadian homeowners.

In Canada, government should be taking a far more active role in preventing this form of cancer and its burden on health care costs. It will cost government to produce an effective social marketing campaign, and it will cost homeowners to test and remediate their homes. However, there is also a cost if government and homeowners do nothing. Radon induced lung cancers continue to take lives. The time for action is well past.

The Homeowner Protection Centre (HPC) received funding from Industry Canada's Contributions Program for Non-profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations to undertake this research.