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Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:07
Good afternoon. My name is Kelley Bush, and I am the head of radon education and awareness under Health Canada's national radon program.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for inviting me to be here today to discuss radon as a cause of lung cancer and to highlight the work of the Canadian – National Radon Proficiency Program.
Through the ongoing activities of this program, Health Canada is committed to informing Canadians about the health risk of radon, better understanding the methods and technologies available for reducing radon exposure, and giving Canadians the tools to take action to reduce their exposure.
Radon is a colourless, odourless radioactive gas that is formed naturally in the environment. It comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rock. When radon is released from the ground in outdoor air, it gets diluted and is not a concern. However, when radon enters an indoor space, such as a home, it can accumulate to high levels and become a serious health risk. Radon naturally breaks down into other radioactive substances called progeny. Radon gas and radon progeny in the air can be breathed into the lungs, where they break down further and emit alpha particles. These alpha particles release small bursts of energy, which are absorbed by the nearby lung tissue and lead to lung cell death or damage. When lung cells are damaged, they have the potential to result in cancer when they reproduce.
The lung cancer risk associated with radon is well recognized internationally. As noted by the World Health Organization, a recent study on indoor radon and lung cancer in North America, Europe, and Asia provided strong evidence that radon causes a substantial number of lung cancers in the general population. It's recognized around the world that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, and that smokers also exposed to high levels of radon have a significantly increased risk of developing lung cancer.
Based on the latest data from Health Canada, 16% of lung cancers are radon-induced, resulting in more than 3,200 deaths in Canada each year. To manage these risks, in 2007 the federal government in collaboration with provinces and territories lowered the federal guideline from 800 to 200 becquerels per cubic metre. Our guideline of 200 becquerels per cubic metre is amongst the lowest radon action levels internationally, and aligns with the World Health Organization's recommended range of 100 to 300 becquerels per cubic metre.
All homes and buildings have some level of radon. It's not a question of “if” you have radon in your house; you do. The only question is how much, and the only way to know is to test. Health Canada recommends that all homeowners test their home and that if the levels are high, above our Canadian guideline, you take action to reduce.
The national radon program was launched in 2007 to support the implementation of the new federal guideline. Funding for this program is provided under the Government of Canada's clean air regulatory agenda. Our national radon program budget is $30.5 million over five years.
Since its creation, the program has had direct and measurable impacts on increasing public awareness, increasing radon testing in homes and public buildings, and reducing radon exposure. This has been accomplished through research to characterize the radon problem in Canada, as well as through measures to protect Canadians by increasing their awareness and giving them tools to take action on radon.
The national radon program includes important research to characterize radon risk in Canada. Two large-scale, cross-Canada residential surveys have been completed, using long-term radon test kits in over 17,000 homes. The surveys have provided us with a much better understanding of radon levels across the country. This data is used by Health Canada and our stakeholder partners to further define radon risk, to effectively target radon outreach, to raise awareness, and to promote action. For example, Public Health Ontario used this data in its radon burden of illness study. The Province of British Columbia used the data to inform its 2014 changes to their provincial building codes, which made radon reduction codes more stringent in radon-prone areas based on the results of our cross-Canada surveys. The CBC used the data to develop a special health investigative report and interactive radon map.
The national radon program also conducts research on radon mitigation, including evaluating the effectiveness of mitigation methods, conducting mitigation action follow-up studies, and analyzing the effects of energy retrofits on radon levels in buildings. For example, in partnership with the National Research Council, the national radon program conducted research on the efficacy of common radon mitigation systems in our beautiful Canadian climatic conditions. It is also working with the Toronto Atmospheric Fund to incorporate radon testing in a study they're doing that looks at community housing retrofits and the impacts on indoor air quality.
This work supports the development of national codes and standards on radon mitigation. The national radon program led changes to the 2010 national building codes. We are currently working on the development of two national mitigation standards, one for existing homes and one for new construction.
The program has developed an extensive outreach program to inform Canadians about the risk from radon and encourage action to reduce exposure. This outreach is conducted through multiple platforms targeting the general public, key stakeholder groups, as well as populations most at risk such as smokers and communities known to have high radon.
Many of the successes we've achieved so far under this program have been accomplished as a result of collaboration and partnership with a broad range of stakeholder partners. Our partners include provincial and municipal governments, non-governmental organizations, health professional organizations, the building industry, the real estate industry, and many more. By working with these stakeholders, the program is able to strengthen the credibility of the messages we're sending out and extend the reach and impact of our outreach efforts. We are very grateful for their ongoing engagement and support.
In November 2013 the New Brunswick Lung Association, the Ontario Lung Association, Summerhill Impact, and Health Canada launched the very first national radon action month. This annual national campaign is promoted through outreach events, website content, social media, public service announcements, and media exposure. It raises awareness about radon and encourages Canadians to take action. In 2014 the campaign grew in the number of stakeholders and organizations that participate in raising awareness. It also included the release of a public service announcement with television personality Mike Holmes, who encouraged all Canadians to test their home for radon.
To give Canadians access to the tools to take action, extensive guidance documents have been developed on radon measurement and mitigation. Heath Canada also supported the development of a Canadian national radon proficiency program, which is a certification program designed to establish guidelines for training professionals in radon services. This program ensures that quality measurement and mitigation services are available to Canadians.
The Ontario College of Family Physicians as well as McMaster University, with the support of Health Canada, have developed an accredited continuing medical education course on radon. This course is designed to help health professionals—a key stakeholder group—answer patients' questions about the health risks of radon and the need to test their homes and reduce their families' exposure.
The national radon program also includes outreach targeted to at-risk populations. For example, Erica already mentioned the three-point home safety checklist that we've supported in partnership with CPCHE. As well, to reach smokers, we have a fact sheet entitled “Radon—Another Reason to Quit”. This is sent out to doctors' offices across Canada to be distributed to patients. Since the distribution of those fact sheets began, the requests from doctors offices have increased quite significantly. It began with about 5,000 fact sheets ordered a month, and we're up to about 30,000 fact sheets ordered a month and delivered across Canada.
In recognition of the significant health risk posed by radon, Health Canada's national radon program continues to undertake a range of activities to increase public awareness of the risk from radon and to provide Canadians with the tools they need to take action. We are pleased to conduct this work in collaboration with many partners across the country.
Thank you for your attention. I look forward to any questions the committee members might have.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:17
We are already working with CMHC on the radon issue.
Here is what is being done to remedy the problem. Canada Post has a program called smartmoves, or déménageur in French. Every time someone submits a change of address request, they receive an information kit on everything they need to think about when they move into a new home. Information on radon is part of that kit. That's a way to inform homeowners when they should test radon levels before they move into a new home.
You asked a question about moving, but I forgot what the second part of your question was about.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:18
Okay.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:23
We'd had the same guideline level since 1988. The original guideline was set based on available research on miners' exposure. It was only in the early 2000s that there was new pooled research that distinctly demonstrated that there was a risk at lower levels in a residential environment, and that research led to Health Canada and our federal-provincial-territorial committee reviewing the guideline and lowering the reference level to 200. We knew at the time that was a significant decrease, and if we were going to decrease the guideline to that extent, we wanted to have a full program to support it to make sure that we educated Canadians about what the guideline meant, and the actions that they could take to reduce their risk.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:24
Absolutely. We did some public opinion research comparing where we were at the beginning of the program in 2007 to where we were in 2013, and we've definitely seen an increase from about 50% to about 65% in the level of awareness, and a significant increase from 4% to 25% with regard to Canadians' awareness of where they can get detectors and how they can test their homes. The challenge with this issue is that while levels of awareness have definitely increased, our research so far demonstrates that we haven't achieved a significant increase in action, i.e., testing.
The conversation about the challenges around risk communication and radon could be a very interesting one, because you can't blame anyone. There's no immediate health effect, and a lot of people tend to be apathetic towards the issue. We're making good strides, but the point we're at now is that we need to convert awareness to action. We're starting to see that, but there's still more work to be done.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:26
According to the cross-Canada survey data that I mentioned earlier, it's estimated that across Canada 7% of homes have high levels of radon, but that varies quite significantly across the country. In Manitoba and New Brunswick, it was over 20%, but in every single province there were regions where 10% to 20% and in some places 40% to 50% of homes tested high. The average across the country at 7% of homes is still very significant.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:27
I can speak to what Health Canada has done there. We have gone to make a presentation about the revised guideline, and we follow up on a very regular basis. It is the intent to have the Canada Labour Code harmonized with our current Canadian guideline. It's just been delayed. The most recent information we have is that it's supposed to be updated by the winter of 2015-16.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:28
I think Kathy would like to respond there.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:30
The only thing I can add is that under the national radon program we have worked with the Canadian Real Estate Association, and they now do have guidance that they provide with regard to radon. Based on our discussions with other countries, such as the U.S., that have had a national radon program in place for longer, with regard to.... Every home has radon. It's not a question of whether or not it's in there. I don't know about labelling, but I can tell you—
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:30
When we get calls from members of the public who have tested their home and are concerned because they want to sell it but they've mitigated it, our response to them is that everything that we've seen in the U.S. in regard to what they can communicate is that they've addressed the issue, they've made their home a healthier home, and it's a value-add. That's what they've seen in the U.S. It doesn't impact it in that way. I don't know if that directly answers your question.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:31
I'm not aware of any comparison like that being done within Health Canada. Smoking is definitely a bigger contributor. I think I should make that statement very clearly because we've worked with our colleagues on the tobacco side. With regard to a comparison, from an economic perspective, no.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:32
That is absolutely what Health Canada's looking at with the research we're doing, from two perspectives. From the perspective of the work that's being done to retrofit a home, is there an opportunity to build radon out in that situation? Secondly, with regard to what's being done to retrofit and seal up the home, is there a risk of increasing the radon level in the home? That research is still ongoing so we don't have all of the results.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:33
I do have a colleague who is responsible for the technical operations side and all the research, so we are both the go-to. It takes a big group to run the program.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:33
The way the building code works is that at a national level it's a model code. If it's adopted at the provincial level then it's enforceable. The large majority of the provinces and territories have adopted the codes related to radon. Several of them are now taking them and making them more stringent as they have more data available with regard to the risk of radon in their provinces and municipalities.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:34
There are two codes now. One is a sealing application, so it's a vapour barrier, basically, a very thick piece of plastic that goes under the concrete slab, and there's also a rough-in for a radon mitigation system. One of the most significant parts of installing a radon reduction system is having to core through that slab. If you have that four-inch PVC pipe there, capped, and it's available, it's much easier to install a radon reduction system.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:35
Right. This was a concern that was raised in 2008, so in response Health Canada did a study. We looked at 35 different commonly used granites in Canada. Essentially, the result was that the risk is not from your granite countertops. Enjoy them. Keep them. The risk is in the ground under your home. The best thing you can do is to test your home for radon.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:36
My pleasure.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:36
It's in very few communities. They have it in some communities. Those real estate documents differ quite a bit across the country.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:36
I'm not sure I completely understand the question.
It's been estimated that 16% of lung cancers are related to radon exposure, but....
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:37
I don't know that I can speak to that in detail. There have been some, but there are also communities where that hasn't been demonstrated. Probably the best answer is that it's not consistent.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:37
Similar to the question of asking a lifelong smoker why they didn't develop lung cancer, it's very hard to explain exactly why some are impacted more than others.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:37
Test their home. They have two options. They can buy a do-it-yourself test kit or they can hire a certified professional. If the levels are high, take action to reduce, because it's easy. The cost is similar to other home maintenance costs. It's similar to a new air conditioner or a new furnace, and it will reduce your radon by up to 80% to 90%.
Kelley Bush
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Kelley Bush
2015-06-18 16:37
That's it. They can call Health Canada if they have any questions, because we're more than willing to help.
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