[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do you live in a house right now, whether you own or rent or live with family or friends or by yourself, whatever. This isn’t a real estate story. Mostly.
If you do live in a house, how do you monitor it for danger? I’m going to guess there’s just a few basics that most of us do. Smoke detectors, obviously, number one, check them every year. Some of, you might have a security camera, either as a doorbell or on the side of your home. Okay. And probably a carbon monoxide detector that you only remember when it starts beeping and scares the crap out of you until you realize that it needs a new battery. That’s three and those are the big ones.
You might get your tap water tested if it seems off, but that’s about it for most of us. Now, what about radon? Right? You remember it, maybe from the table of elements in high school. You might not have thought about it for decades, but do you know the level of radon gas that’s [00:01:00] currently in your home right now?
I’m not trying to scare you here, but do you know how much radon exposure it takes to harm you? Do you know what kind of medical conditions that leads to in the long-term? It’s not good, I promise. And here is the scary part. A Canada-wide study found incredibly high levels of radon gas in more homes than you’d imagine. And higher levels were found in newer homes and those homes, they’re the ones we’ve spent most of the past year, stuck inside full time. So if you are a little scared by this, you probably want to listen today and you might want to think about getting the home you lived in tested.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Declan Keogh is a reporter at the Investigative Journalism Bureau, which combined with the Toronto Star on this investigation. Hey Declan.
Declan Keogh: Hi, how are you?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m great. Thank you for joining [00:02:00] us.
Declan Keogh: Thank you for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t you start, um, with some basic science and explain what is radon?
Declan Keogh: Um, radon is a naturally occurring gas, um, that comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil. It’s present across the globe. When it’s outside, it just kind of dissipates into the air. And, uh, when it’s in your house, it, it gets trapped inside.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How does it end up in homes in the first place?
Declan Keogh: It comes from the ground, often through the foundation. Whether it’s cracks in the foundation or newer foundations, it just, it just comes up out of the ground.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’ll get into the details of this in just a second, but what does it do to somebody, um, living in a house over, you know, decades or a lifespan, um, with high levels of radon?
Declan Keogh: I think it depends. Um, but, but the general consensus is it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in Canada. Uh, it gets into your lungs. It, [00:03:00] it messes with your DNA. And, um, if you’re unlucky, it can turn into lung cancer, which is of course the deadliest form of cancer. So that’s the main thing. Uh, it, it, levels and the length of time, all I’ll play into it. Lifestyle. But there’s estimates that for an increase of 100 becquerels per meter cubed, which is the unit they measure this in, uh, it can increase your, your risk of lung cancer by 16%.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow. Um, How did this story start, um, for you guys? I guess it started with the data you got your hands on. Do you wanna just sorta tell me, uh, of the process here?
Declan Keogh: Yeah, so, um, I work at the Investigative Journalism Bureau and we’re a pretty new nonprofit newsroom. And we’re based at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. And our kind of model is we, we collaborate with media organizations and academics and students, and [00:04:00] work together to bring public interest stories, uh, onto the front pages of newspapers and TV screens. And this one was, you know, I mean, the inception is not super interesting, it was a story that had been batted around, but, uh, it, it illustrates the model because, um, we were able to partner with a environmental scientist who helped write it. Uh, through her connections, we were able to connect with researchers at the University of Calgary and Evict Radon who, who ultimately collected the data and shared it with us.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Maybe you could just outline, um, the scope of the data and what you found out when you got your hands on it.
Declan Keogh: So as far as we know, as far as the researchers know, this is the largest dataset of radon tests in the country. It’s just under 30,000, and it spans coast to coast to coast. It’s, it’s remarkable in that what they found is one in five houses across the country exceed [00:05:00] the federal guideline for, for radon, and half of them exceed the World Health Organization’s guideline.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How does that compare to our peer countries, say like, I’m trying to get a sense of, you know, are we unique in being this bad about it?
Declan Keogh: Sort of, yeah. I mean, the researchers like to break it down by region and for example, the Prairies, which is Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, they are the second highest in the world behind only Poland. Every other region in Canada with the exception of BC and the Pacific Coast are in the top 10.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow. That’s staggering when you think about it.
Declan Keogh: It really is. And, uh, I mean, I grew up in Calgary and I had no idea about this and I’ve had many panicked moments while reporting this story.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I mean, I had a panicked moment reading it. I had not, you know, you think about certain things you need to monitor in your home, obviously carbon monoxide and, and a smoke detector and all of that. This is not something, as somebody [00:06:00] who’s owned a home for just a couple of years here, not something I’d ever thought of.
Declan Keogh: No. And it’s, it’s one of those things. It’s, um, it’s tasteless, it’s odourless. You’d never know it was there. You could spend your whole life in the same house, uh, and you would really have no, no knowledge of it unless you test.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Did the study give you any kind of idea of which houses were susceptible to this kind of thing? I mean, you spoke briefly a minute ago about kind of the geography of the various parts of Canada, but, but in more detail, like what makes someone’s house susceptible to this?
Declan Keogh: It’s interesting. So the new research that the researchers that Evict Radon and University of Calgary have been doing is, is interesting in that they’ve been testing homes and they categorize them by age and it, counterintuitively, the newer the home, the worst it seems to be. So a quarter of the houses built in the 21st century since the year 2000, uh, [00:07:00] exceed guidelines and it breaks down a bit further, um, and you know, in the last four years, the houses that are being built automatically exceed, um, like for example, the US guideline, which is slightly lower than the Canadian one.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I assume just because, uh, you mentioned it gets in through the foundation, for the, for the purposes of this conversation, we’re talking about family homes here, right? Like not apartment buildings or lofts or whatever.
Declan Keogh: Exactly. Yeah. Um, the researchers did test for, you know, bungalows, which are the type of house that are the worst. Uh, they call it the, the king of radon. Um, but they also test for, you know, row houses, semi-detached, split level, but not so much for your, your condos in your apartments.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you explain a little bit, um, about how the radon gets from the earth to the foundation and then up into the home, and how that kind of matters depending on [00:08:00] what kind of home you have? Like, I’m curious as to why a bungalow, for instance, but I imagine there’s just less air in the home?
Declan Keogh: Yeah. So with bungalows, I, it, from what we understand, what researchers have told us is it’s a smaller house, less windows. Um, it comes from the ground, so it travels up. Um, and as far as getting into the house, uh, you know, the, the researchers we worked with were, were, were mentioning things like cracks in the foundation or unfinished basements as being less sealed. It’s it’s essentially the less of a seal there is, or a barrier between the house and the foundation and the actual ground, the, the worse, or the more likely it’s going to be, that that radon gets in.
And, you know, it’s interesting, we spoke with the family a number of times who, who had the trophy, I guess, of having the highest levels of radon in, in the study and, and theirs were so high because, it was a very unique, weird situation . Where there was an actually, uh, [00:09:00] an, a water well in the basement. So it was just like a, just an open air, uh, tube for pumping radon into their house.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow. How does that happen?
Declan Keogh: I don’t know why that would happen, I, they told us, uh, it used to be, they were in the outskirts of Calgary, so. It’s kind of a farm thing, I guess.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Declan Keogh: But their levels were- so the, the, the guideline is 200 and, and their, their tests in the basement around the, the, well, at one point had topped like 170,000.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow. That’s um, needless to say like crazy, dangerous, right? Or did they get sick or did they just stumble upon it early enough?
Declan Keogh: They tested on an offhand comment. They bought their house last January and in 2020, uh, an offhand comment from a home inspector said, you should probably test for radon, and they did. And, um, and then months later they find this and then they started working to fix it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This might be a dumb question, but, uh, you know, if I’m [00:10:00] freaked out or if someone listening to this is freaked out, how do you go about testing for radon? Can you buy something or do you have to get a professional?
Declan Keogh: There is no such thing as a dumb question, but, uh, it’s, uh, it’s a relatively simple process. Um, you can get, uh, testers from hardware stores or you can go to Evict Radon, um, and you know, prices vary. But at Evict Radon on it’s a flat rate of 50 bucks. You put it in your basement and you leave it for at least 91 days. Um, and the reason you leave it for so long is because things like opening a window can drastically affect levels. So they want a long time period to average it out.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And do we know what it is about, um, the different kinds of homes that make them more likely to trap, uh, radon? Like what’s going on there that’s not going on in the older homes?
Declan Keogh: It’s, it’s interesting. So there’s theories, I don’t think, uh, there’s um, conclusive evidence one way or [00:11:00] the other, but the running theories are generally the newer, the home, the more efficient it is, the the better, it keeps heat in and keeps cold out, for example. The thought is the unintended consequences of that is you’re also keeping in the gas from, from radon.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So this is something that as we get better at one thing, uh, this is just an unintended, an unintended consequence?
Declan Keogh: It could be, but, but the thing is, is with radon it’s it’s, it’s not necessarily an intractable problem. It’s actually a very simple fix.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Which is?
Declan Keogh: They’re called, um, remediation systems essentially. Um, there’s, there’s a few different types, but the common one is you drill down into the foundation, you put a fan and a, and a pipe and you just vent the air out of the house, like through the wall or out of the ceiling.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So why don’t more houses have that, if it’s very simple?
Declan Keogh: I mean, it’s, it can be expensive. Um, it could range from a couple thousand [00:12:00] dollars up to 10 and it all depends on the house, right. It’s, and it’s, it’s people’s houses.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Declan Keogh: And not everybody has that kind of money.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about the cost on the other side of this? Because I want to ask a little bit about, you know, policy around this. Do we have any kind of estimates just in terms of like what the cost is on a grand scale of not addressing this? And I mean, that both in the case of like, human lives, but also if a lot of people are getting lung cancer from this, like that’s a big burden on the healthcare system.
Declan Keogh: It is. And lung cancer is generally the most expensive to treat. It’s got the highest mortality rate with, with something like one in five people surviving after diagnosis, five years after diagnosis. Um, we calculated, uh, using estimates from, uh, Canadian Cancer Society and Health Canada that it currently costs roughly 140 to $320 million per year.
[00:13:00] And, um, researchers we spoke with told us treatment gets better and more effective. It also becomes more expensive. So they expect these costs to continue to rise.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Has there been any thought given to requiring newer homes to be built, uh, with these mitigation systems?
Declan Keogh: Yes, but it, it often falls straight down to the municipal level. Um, in Ontario, for example, there’s no requirements for this and new builds, um, except in cases where it’s known that there’s a radon problem. So in Guelph they’ve, they’ve instituted their own, their own laws and their own building codes. So every new house that’s built in Guelph has to be tested and, and, uh, mitigated if it’s needed.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about when property changes hands? I mean, you know, like I mentioned, we got our house two years ago. Um, we had a full home inspection. I have to say I have no idea, uh, if it was even included in that, uh, if [00:14:00] there’d ever been any radon testing done here.
Declan Keogh: It’s interesting. So we, we reached out to real estate associations and, um, applicable ministries in every province to ask this very question, you know, is disclosure required? Is there any, is there any testing done? What happens if it’s found? And most say, yeah, you know, we’re supposed to, it’s supposed to be disclosed. Um, it’s considered a material latent defect, but the reality is as, as I’m sure everyone knows, the market right now is, is quite hot. Houses are selling very quickly. Um, and this isn’t, this is a long test, right? So. Doesn’t seem to us, we weren’t able to find a lot, a lot about this.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And do people even know to ask for it? I mean, that’s the other thing, right?
Declan Keogh: I, I, that’s a good question. I mean, before starting reporting on this, I wouldn’t have known. Um, there’s a lot of education around it, whether it reaches people is, uh, is another, is another question.
There [00:15:00] are systems that can, can address this. So we, we found in the UK, for example, there’s something called a Radon Retention Bond, which is specifically designed for the sale of homes. Essentially, what happens is the seller puts up the money that would be required to test and mitigate if it’s found to have high levels of radon. If it is, good, the system is installed. And if not, the money just goes back to the person. It doesn’t hold up any deals or anything. And that has been used in Canada sporadically, but, but we were unable to find any policies around it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If the responsibility for, um, a lot of this stuff in terms of buildings is on the city, what’s on the other levels of government? I mean, you know, looking at, at the piece you guys put together, this is a problem across the entire country and it’s something that’s costing a not-insignificant amount of money to our health care system. Where does the federal government come into this?
Declan Keogh: It’s Canada. Um, it’s, it’s [00:16:00] Confederation. So they, they have guidelines. They have best practices. They issue the National Building Code which says all new homes should have a rough-in for the system in the, in the basement, so a place to put the system. Uh, it doesn’t mention putting the system in, just, just to have, uh, the ability to do it. Most provinces follow the National Building Code. Um, you know, researchers and advocates we talk to say it doesn’t go far enough, obviously, just put the thing in and, uh, and then we can start worrying about the older houses and instead of all the houses.
In BC, it’s interesting, they have their own adapted version of the Building Code and they require in certain areas a passive system, which is the vent out without a fan. But that also lowers, uh, radon levels, um, quite significantly as well.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s been a couple of weeks now, since your story was published. I’m wondering if you’ve gotten any feedback, seen [00:17:00] any action, uh, at any level? Like this is, again, you know, to my mind, one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is it’s just something so simple and startling that it seems like we could take care of it.
Declan Keogh: We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, um, from people, the, the researchers, uh, have said, they’ve got a lot of interest in, in people wanting to test, a lot of anecdotal things like that. But you know, there, there is a lot going on in the world right now. And, and it’s, it’s hard to, um, I guess hold the attention of, of people. Uh, but, we’ll, I think it’s remain- it remains to be seen, really.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Declan, thank you so much for taking the time for this today.
Declan Keogh: Uh, thank you so much for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Declan Keogh, a reporter at the Investigative Journalism Bureau. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Email us at thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all [00:18:00] lowercase. You could probably do it all uppercase and it would still work, but it makes more sense this way, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. You can also find us in any podcast player you like, Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify. We are everywhere, even on your smart speakers.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page