New research focuses on radon exposure in Canadian schools
Those working and studying in elementary and secondary schools are among the most exposed to radon and yet many schools are not tested new Canadian research finds.
For their investigation, Radon in schools: A summary of testing efforts across Canada, CAREX Canada researchers contacted Ministries of Education, school boards, unions, and radon professionals to identify where radon testing had taken place. They did not collect or assess remediation efforts.
Some of the key findings are:
- Quebec is the only province with mandatory testing for radon in schools
- British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba have low rates of school testing
- Some school districts and individual schools have undertaken testing in the absence of province-wide testing requirements.
The study, released for November’s Radon Action Month, is one of many initiatives to raise awareness of radon hazards and build support for exposure reduction.
Radon—a major contributor to lung cancer
Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas. It naturally occurs with the breakdown of uranium in soil and rock and tends to build up in the lower levels of buildings, especially in basements. Testing is needed to detect if the gas is present and at harmful levels that may require action.
Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Health Canada estimates radon is responsible for 16 per cent of lung cancer deaths in Canada. Ontario’s burden is equally significant. A recent report by Cancer Care Ontario and Public Health Ontario on the Environmental Burden of Cancer in Ontario concluded radon is the second leading source of environmental cancer in Ontario, after solar ultraviolet radiation.
Need for better protection
These recent studies add to existing research which support much needed policy reform and make calls for radon testing and remediation more urgent.
Across Canada a patchwork of laws and guidelines exist to address radon. Health Canada’s Canadian Guidelines for Management of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) establishes 200 Bq/m3 (Bequerels per cubic metre) as the acceptable annual average concentration of radon gas in buildings including homes and public buildings. However, Canada’s exposure level is double the 100 Bq/m3 level recommended by the World Health Organization.
CAREX Canada estimates 188,000 Canadian workers are occupationally exposed to radon. Along with those working in schools, workers employed in public administration are among the others highly exposed.
Ontario’s Occupational Health & Safety Act (the Act) imposes a general duty on employers to protect worker health and safety including identifying and controlling physical hazards like radon. Specifically, Regulation 854 (Mines and Mining Plants), made under the Act, addresses workplace responsibilities with respect to radon daughters in underground mines (sections 289 to 293).
Health, safety and environmental advocates suggest taking effective action on radon requires efforts on many fronts including:
- expanding protection under provincial Building Codes. Ontario’s Building Code adopts the Health Canada guideline but restricts its application to high radon areas in the province.
- establishing a system for mandatory radon testing in workplaces.
- providing financial incentives to encourage radon remediation, including a federal radon tax credit, championed by the Canadian Environmental Law Association.