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Kathleen Cooper
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Kathleen Cooper
2015-06-18 15:48
First of all, to tell you about the Canadian Environmental Law Association, we're a non-profit public interest organization specializing in environmental law. We're also a legal aid clinic within Ontario. We provide legal representation to low-income individuals and vulnerable communities.
Then we have law reform priorities, and in setting our strategic priorities, one of those is environment and human health. In deciding within that large topic how to set priorities, we take a population health approach, the same as Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and public health agencies everywhere do. You set priorities by focusing on issues where large numbers of people are potentially or directly affected or where you have serious outcomes.
You can't get much more serious than a known carcinogen where there's strong science. Radon, as I'm sure you're going to hear later as well, is in a class by itself compared to most other environmental carcinogens. That's why we've focused on radon.
I'm going to speak today to a report we prepared last year, “Radon in Indoor Air: A Review of Policy and Law in Canada”. I believe you've been circulated the media release that was issued the day we released the report. That's all I was able to have translated given the time pressure of meeting with you today.
We canvassed policy and law across Canada at the federal and provincial levels and looked at jurisdictions and roles. We focused on public buildings and building codes, looked at other relevant provincial policy and law and the associated common law, and made a number of recommendations, but I'll focus today on just the recommendations we made with respect to the federal government.
Overall, our findings were that Canadians need better legal protection from radon. We found a patchwork of inconsistent and mostly unenforceable guidance.
For the federal government, we found that really important leadership has occurred, and Kelley Bush from Health Canada will provide some details on that for you today, although we definitely made recommendations for more that can be done. At the provincial and territorial level, where actually most jurisdiction lies, we found a wide range of laws that need to be updated or that contain gaps or ambiguities. There's very limited case law, which points to the need for improving a law or for law reform. I won't get into detail on what's been done at the federal level on radon, although the report does, because Kelley will be doing that for you later on.
Just in summary, under the national radon program there has been very valuable research, testing, and mapping of high -radon areas. The guideline for indoor radon was updated in 2007. The national building code was updated with respect to radon provisions, there's a certification program for radon mitigators, and there has been a national campaign to urge the testing by Canadians of their homes. It's recommended that every home in Canada be tested.
We recommended, to build on that important work, that there really is a logical next step here. Through the work of the Green Budget Coalition this past year, we recommended a tax credit for radon remediation. We recommended that the Income Tax Act add a tax credit for radon mitigation of up to $3,000 for individual Canadians, so long as it's done by a certified expert under the national program. That was not included in the budget, although we think it's still a very good idea. We had some very positive response from the federal officials we spoke to about it.
We also recommended that there be clearer messaging about radon, and that we use words like “radiation” and “radioactivity” because they are accurate and are what people understand more in terms of the risks of radiation and radon. We also recommended that there be better data sharing nationally between the federal government and the provinces and territories in terms of the testing that's done, along with the sharing of information that's paid for nationally, and that information be available publicly.
In terms of recommendations for federal action as well, we note that the David Suzuki Foundation report that came out just last month says the World Health Organization has recommended a lower level of 100 for indoor radon. Currently, our federal level is 200 becquerels per cubic metre. We definitely supported that recommendation and recommend that the federal government reduce the indoor radon guideline to 100.
The other two areas I want to touch on that are relevant to your investigation here have to do with the Canada Labour Code and the need to update it as well, and also the need for improving the uptake across Canada of the naturally occurring radioactive materials guidelines, the NORM guidelines. I'm going to speak to those two areas now.
Under the Canada Labour Code, there is the only legally enforceable limit for radon in Canada that's broadly applicable, but it's only for federally regulated workplaces and it remains at an outdated level of 800 becquerels per cubic metre. We think it should be brought down to the federal reference level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre to begin with, and we think that level should come down to 100 becquerels per cubic metre. On the updating of that level, apparently what was going to happen in 2015 now sounds like it's going to happen in 2016, so it would be great if your committee recommended speeding up that process.
In terms of the NORM guidelines, these are guidelines that were prepared by a federal-provincial-territorial committee. We interviewed occupational health and safety inspectors across Canada and found a lot of confusion and uncertainty about workplace radon rules or whether the NORM guidelines apply. In fact, they apply to every workplace in Canada. In any indoor space that is a workplace, including the room in which you are sitting, those guidelines apply.
However, it's a reactive, complaint-driven system. Inspectors get few or no complaints because there is a lack of awareness, so they don't take enforcement action. Also, some inspectors didn't think that radon was an occupational health and safety issue at all. They said that enforcement action was unlikely because the only agreed-upon levels for radiation are those for radiation-exposed workers. That is just not accurate, so we've made recommendations in response to that situation.
Turning to the recommendations we made with respect to the Canada Labour Code, as I've mentioned, it should be brought up to date swiftly. It's out of date by many years and still at that level of 800 becquerels per cubic metre.
With respect to radon, we recommended that the federal-provincial-territorial radiation protection committee, which deals with far more than radon—it deals with a whole manner of radiation exposure issues—convene a task force for occupational health and safety inspectors across the country so that there is clarity and there is a more generalized consistent application of those NORM guidelines to ensure worker health and safety. The consequences of that inconsistent application are that you're going to have uneven worker protection across the country and the possibility that people are overexposed, both in the workplace and in their homes, if they happen to be unlucky enough to have high radon levels in both of those indoor locations where they live and work. Related to that, we made a range of recommendations about provincial labour codes, which I won't get into.
In another area of occupational exposure, with respect to radon mitigators, we also recommended that CAREX Canada, who you're going to hear from later today, undertake, with the Canadian national radon proficiency program, research and dosimetry monitoring for radon mitigators so that we can make sure their workplaces are safe as well.
Just to recap on the findings in this report and to recommend to you to take up some of these recommendations in your deliberations on this topic, we found a need for greater legal requirements rather than guidance in this area for several reasons, including the need to underscore the seriousness of the problem and to support public outreach messages by the federal government and by other organizations who you're going to hear from today, including the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment.
Also, there's a need for legal requirements to require testing in public buildings and to ensure public access to that information. As well, there's the need to correct that inconsistent response among both the public health and the occupational health and safety inspectors and to provide them with tools to take action with respect to radon. As I mentioned, we found limited to no case law under either statutes or common law. We also found that improving the law or law reform is a better remedy than costly and situation-specific litigation to resolve radon problems.
Then, as I mentioned, there's a need for specific federal government action, including updating that federal guideline and putting in place a tax credit to help Canadians undertake radon mitigation when they have high levels, updating that Canada Labour Code, and ensuring the NORM guidelines are applied.
We've calculated the health care savings from prevented lung cancer deaths. If all homes in Canada were mitigated to the level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre, you'd see more than $17 million a year in savings through prevented lung cancer deaths. It likely would be double that if you were to reduce the level to 100 becquerels per cubic metre. Then, of course, anyone who works in cancer will tell you that the indirect costs are five times higher than the direct costs, so a lot of savings are possible there, along with the avoidance of the pain and suffering associated with lung cancer.
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