It is well known that smoking is the main cause of lung cancer. But far fewer people can tell you what the next leading cause is, accounting for about 3,200 deaths in Canada each year.
It’s radon, an invisible threat that could be lurking in your home.
The good news is that the Healthy Indoor Environments team is working to help homebuyers better spot this threat.
Radon is a colorless, odorless byproduct of uranium deposits, which can rise through the ground and seep into buildings. Over time, it can increase your chances of developing lung cancer to one in 20, and for those who smoke, the risk increases to one in three.
This risk is preventable: anyone can purchase a radon test kit, and those with high levels of radon in their homes can take steps to reduce them. But awareness of radon is still low: Just over half of British Columbians have heard of radon, and only six percent have tested for it.
“Radon is a problem across Canada, but there is geographic variability,” says Noah Quastel, director of Healthy Indoor Environments law and policy at the BC Lung Foundation. “British Columbia stands out because there is little radon on the coast, but plenty of radon inland. The interior of BC is one of the places with the highest presence of radon on the planet.”
According to the British Columbia Radon Map, about one in three indoor homes has moderate or high levels of radon.
Quastel, a lawyer by training, has been working with the BC Lung Foundation to leverage existing health and safety laws and regulations to address radon-related risks, developing policy and advocating for change across the industry. “There are a lot of health and safety regulations that radon falls under, but people just don’t know about it,” he explains.
It’s not just a problem in BC Provinces have fallen behind in implementing laws and policies based on guidance provided by Health Canada, says Quastel.
“Health Canada has worked hard to publicize the problem [of radon] and create technical standards, but laws on housing, construction and community planning generally fall to the provinces, and most provinces have not been taking this very well.”
As a result, radon has been treated largely as an individual responsibility. Quastel and the Healthy Indoor Environments team are working to change that, in part by making the real estate industry aware of its legal responsibilities around radon.
The Quastel team was honored for their efforts by the Real Estate Foundation of BC, who presented them with the Real Estate Land Award earlier this month. The Real Estate Land Award recognizes projects that raise the level of innovation, collaboration and sustainability in the real estate sector.
Buying a home is a time when people are particularly attuned to safety concerns and health hazards in the home, and presents an opportunity for radon education and awareness.
The Healthy Indoor Environments team reviewed approaches in other provinces and connected with radon specialists, including the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, to develop their policy proposals.
The Quastel team then reached out to the BC Financial Services Authority and the BC Real Estate Association to demonstrate what other groups across the country were doing to mitigate radon, and worked with real estate agents to develop educational workshops and training materials. Their initial research showed that less than 10 percent of real estate agents knew enough about radon to advise their clients.
Both organizations have adopted several of the policy proposals put forward by Healthy Indoor Environments in the last three years. One is the industry-wide recognition that high radon levels are a “latent defect,” a serious health or safety problem that may go undetected in the early stages of a home purchase. The BCREA also added radon to the property disclosure statement in 2020 and created detailed regulatory standards to inform real estate agents and property managers of their responsibilities. These changes have made the BC real estate industry a leader in radon awareness and action.
Beyond real estate, Quastel and his team also worked with Landlord BC and the Renter Counseling and Resource Center to create guides for landlords and renters, including a model letter for renters to request radon testing in their homes.
Quastel is pleased with the changes that the real estate sector has made so far, although he hopes that they will continue to benefit from his efforts; in particular, he hopes that mandatory testing for radon levels will eventually be included as part of home sales. And he’s hopeful that the federal government’s commitment to ensuring healthy environments, along with a national awareness of the housing crisis, will help promote radon protections.
“We spend most of our time indoors, in our homes,” says Quastel. “The right to a healthy environment is meaningless if our indoor environments are unhealthy.”
These efforts, he says, would benefit from having a champion in the provincial government to take advantage of changes in the real estate sector, which are just one piece of the puzzle. “We want people in the Department of Health and the Department of Environment to really start taking radon seriously and think about a more comprehensive plan to address radon in BC, to remove it from our built environments,” she says.
“We could do this in a single generation. In 20 years, there could be no more radon in our buildings.”
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