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 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 these resources and
visit the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH).

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Methew Wade

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