Manitobans encouraged to test homes for cancer-causing gas

Homes throughout the province, particularly in southwest, projected to contain high levels of radon gas

map of radon gas levels in Manitoba

A hard-to-detect radioactive gas is suspected to be leaching through the foundations of many Manitoba homes and could be causing lung cancer.

The Canadian Cancer Society warns that radon gas is estimated to be present in an average of 24 per cent of Manitoba homes, more than double the national average of 11 per cent, according to a survey by Health Canada. Southwest areas of the province are particularly vulnerable — with an estimated 41 per cent; they are one of the areas most at risk in the country.

“We look at this as a significant risk for cancer that Manitobans were mostly unaware of and that they can do something about,” said Erin Crawford, director of public issues at the Manitoba Division of the Canadian Cancer Society.

Radon is odourless, colourless and tasteless, much like carbon monoxide, except there are no symptoms.

“So if you’re being exposed to it you won’t know it,” she said. “The only health outcome is that down the road in 20 years you might be diagnosed with lung cancer.”

According to the Canadian Cancer Society 14 per cent of all new cancer cases in Canada were lung cancer in 2014, and 27 per cent of all cancer-related deaths were from lung cancer.

“It’s very difficult to detect and very difficult to diagnose,” said Crawford.

Radon gas is a major contributor — the second leading cause of lung cancer and the primary cause among non-smokers.

Homes built on soil containing high levels of uranium are more likely to contain high levels of radon gas. When uranium breaks down, underneath the house, the chemical element generates radon, a radioactive gas.

Crawford said there is no way to determine which types of houses are vulnerable because both new and older homes are susceptible. Older homes are more likely to have a cracked or porous foundation, vulnerable to radon gas, while new houses that are well insulated, but not well ventilated, can trap radon gas inside.

“You might have really, really high radon levels in your house and your neighbour might have perfectly acceptable radon levels just because of the difference in how each house is structured and ventilated.”

The only way for residents to determine whether their home has acceptable levels is to test for radon. Test kits are available at some hardware stores or through the Canadian Cancer Society for $30.

Crawford recommends setting up the kit in the basement or wherever you do your “lowest level of living” and waiting three months. Once the time has elapsed you can return the kit to the cancer society that will send the kit off to the lab.

Health Canada lowered its guidelines for safe radon levels from 800 bequerels per square metre to 200 in 2007. A bequerel is a unit measure for radioactivity.

People who find they have high radon levels are encouraged to contact a certified radon mitigator who will conduct mitigation work — sealing the area or improving the circulation.

“We really think this is important,” she said. “We think it’s important for Manitobans to take action and we hope government will take action on this as well.”

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