Publisher’s Column: Radon Gas — the Elephant in Our Rooms

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By John Francis

You know the old joke:

Representatives from France, Germany, the USA and Canada are assembled to present papers on the subject of elephants.

The French paper addresses the capacity of elephants to love. The American paper talks about the commercial potential of elephants. The German paper talks about elephant memory and its implications for Artificial Intelligence in manufacturing.

The Canadian paper is entitled:
“The Elephant — a Federal or Provincial Responsibility?”

*     *     *     *     *

The Men’s Breakfast is a peninsula institution — a bunch of gentlemen of a certain age who gather once a month on a Saturday morning for breakfast and a lecture. The speakers are generally community members, speaking about their areas of knowledge.

On September 9, Lawrence Beagan gave a talk about Radon Gas on the Bruce Peninsula. It didn’t sound very compelling off the top, but he got everybody’s attention very quickly. 

Radon gas is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. And if you smoke AND are exposed to moderate levels of Radon, you are twice as likely to get lung cancer.

But Radon is a lot like smoking — it doesn’t kill everybody, or even most people — it just causes a statistically higher likelihood of lung cancer.

Radon gas is everywhere; it’s only the relative amounts/concentrations that vary from place to place. The Bruce Peninsula has relatively high concentrations; it’s in Zone 1, the highest risk level in Canada. So why have we never heard anything about this?

The short answer is that no government wants to talk about it because they don’t want to answer the obvious next question — why aren’t YOU doing something about it?

The international standard for Radon gas exposure is 100 Becquerels per cubic metre. A lot of places in Canada have background levels well above that. Canada solved that problem by establishing a national standard of 200 Becquerels per cubic metre, which dramatically reduced the number of offending areas. And if you do the testing in the summer, when Radon levels are at their lowest, there are relatively few places with worrisome levels.

That’s a pretty cynical way of getting rid of a problem…

Nobody’s Responsibility

So is Radon gas a federal, provincial, county or municipal responsibility? At present, the answer is no, it’s not. None of the above: it’s your responsibility.

What can or should a person do? Beagan explained that there are several ways to mitigate Radon gas concentrations, but they are inconvenient and/or expensive, and most people don’t need them at all.

Radon conentrations vary wildly over very short distances — such as the distance between one house and its neighbour. Radon is (much) heavier than air so it tends to collect in low spots but it is easily kicked up into the air column. Radon levels also vary seasonally. This means that testing has to be done house by house, season by season,  room by room, (preferably starting at the lowest level you spend time in). 

So should everybody buy a Radon meter?

That would be one solution. But they’re not cheap and you’d only need to use them a few times. The Airthings Corentium battery powered digtal home Radon detector is $179.95 at Canadian Tire (but may not be in stock), $179.95 at Home Depot but has to be ordered specially, or $176.95 from Amazon.

Alternatively, it would be pretty simple for Bruce County to buy a couple of thousand of them and make them available through the libraries… Use one for a few weeks in each room in summer, then take it back to the library. Get another one in winter and test each room again. That should be enough for now. (Repeat every few years.)

If your levels are worrisome, you can look at mitigative strategies; Lawrence Beagan can advise anyone who finds worrisome Radon levels. Otherwise you can stop worrying.

But the library is not likely to offer these any time soon, so you might want to buy a Radon detector yourself and then loan it to your friends when you’re done with it.

The Wonkish Details Somewhat Oversimplified

Uranium 92U235 is a (modestly) unstable radioactive element. It decays through a number of stages until it becomes Lead 82Pb206 which is stable.

Along the way, each Uranium atom decays into a series of other elements, emitting either alpha or beta particles at each step. Both alpha and beta particles are very dangerous in concentration.

The interim elements (Protactinium, Thorium, Radium, Radon, Polonium and several more) vary wildly in their rate of decay, which means they vary wildly in their danger. The slower the rate of decay, the less radioactive a substance is. That rate of decay is described in terms of its “half-life”, the length of time it takes for half of a given quantity to decay.

Some of those elements have half lives in the thousands of years.

Radon gas has a half-life of 3.8 days. That is to say it is extremely radioactive. The alpha particles it produces in decaying are only dangerous over very short distances. But Radon is a gas, which can float around and lodge in your lungs. If a Radon atom decays while it’s in your lung, it blasts the living daylights out of the DNA in adjacent lung cells.

Mostly this is harmless. But if the blasted-apart bits of genetic material recombine into a new configuration that can replicate itself, then Bob’s your uncle — you’ve got a tumour!