Interventions in Committee
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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.
Sarah Henderson
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Sarah Henderson
2015-06-18 16:55
Good afternoon.
There is a slide deck for me as well. The first page of that slide deck should say, “Radon risk areas and lung cancer mortality trends in British Columbia”. I hope that you all have it. I will try to speak to the slides as I go along for those who don't have them.
I want to start by saying thank you so much for inviting me to be here. It's a real honour.
My title at the BC Centre for Disease Control is senior scientist, and I'm really a research scientist. The mandate of my role is to conduct applied public health research in support of good environmental health policy for the province, and that's how I first became interested in radon in British Columbia.
I'm going to show you some real, hard numbers today that come directly from the population data for British Columbia, and that's a bit different from what everybody else has been talking about so far.
If you move to the first slide, it's just a recap of the current guideline values for radon in Canada. We've heard about the number 200 all day, and any concentration lower than that is below the Health Canada guideline. Then if you measure your home and the concentration is between 200 and 600 becquerels per metre cubed, Health Canada currently recommends that you try to remediate that within the next couple of years, whereas if your measurement if over 600 becquerels per metre cubed, they really recommend that you remediate right away. That is the high-danger area for radon.
We've used these values in British Columbia to sort of break up the province into areas that we consider to be low, moderate, and high radon areas. If you are not seeing this in colour, the darkest areas there are coloured in red, and those are the high radon areas.
We're very lucky right now in British Columbia. We have a database of over 4,000 residential radon measurements, including measurements from Health Canada national surveys as well as from a bunch of surveys that have happened in the province, so we were really able to use the data that we have observed in the province to break things up this way. These geographic regions are called local health areas. They're the smallest health geographic unit that we use in British Columbia. We are able to look at deaths that have occurred in this province at this geographic scale, which is why we've used this geographic scale.
We did something quite simple, but I hope you'll agree, also quite effective. We looked at the province by those regions, and over the course of 25 years we summed up all of the deaths attributed to lung cancer in the low, moderate and high regions, and all deaths attributed to all natural causes, and then we divided the number of lung cancer deaths by the number of deaths from all natural causes, and in general, we expect about 7% of all deaths in B.C. to be attributed to lung cancer, which is probably true for most of Canada.
Slide number 4 shows the hypothetical situation. If there were no lung carcinogens in the world other than radon, we would expect lung cancer to be high and steady in the higher radon areas, somewhat lower and steady over time in the moderate radon areas, and then lower still and steady over time in the low radon areas. That's the framework I want you to think about when we go to this next slide.
When we looked at all deaths in British Columbia, we saw something quite different from what one would expect to see under that hypothetical scenario. The bottom line there shows the low radon areas. You might not be able to see that if you're not looking at it in colour. The middle line, which is just a little bit higher than the bottom line, shows the moderate radon areas. Then that line that is sloping upward over time and is quite distinct from the low and moderate lines is the lung cancer mortality proportion that we see in high radon areas over the past 25 years in British Columbia.
We don't have a lot of data about these people. We're doing this with only administrative data. We don't know whether or not they smoked. We don't know whether or not they lived their entire lives in those high radon areas. There are a whole lot of limitations here that we simply can't speak to.
When we split up these data by the higher and lower smoking regions of the province—we know that smoking rates can be up to 30% in some areas and down to 12% in some areas of B.C.—we still see these same persistent trends. It does seem to be that radon is an important factor here.
Another important distinction, and I think it's probably why I was asked to be here today, is what we see when we look at the trends for men versus women.
To look at men, the low line shown on the slide is the low radon areas, the middle line is the moderate radon areas, and the top line is the high radon areas. There's not as big a difference among those three lines as there was when we were looking at everybody together. In general, the lung cancer rates are going down. That's what we expect as the population stops smoking. When we go ahead and look at women, as shown on the next slide, we see the low and moderate lines towards the bottom there, and then the line for women is just taking off and is quite divergent from the other regions.
We're seeing a pretty big difference with respect to the two sexes here when we split up these data. Speaking anecdotally, it's not very scientific, but those of us who are interested in radon in British Columbia hear so many stories from people who say, “My wife died of lung cancer and she never smoked a day in her life.” This matches up with what we hear anecdotally, although that's not very scientific.
Somebody asked about the burden of radon-related lung cancer in high- and low-risk areas according to the current Health Canada guidelines. On this next slide, what we see is from data published by Jing Chen from Health Canada. There's an estimate of 6% of the housing stock currently being over the 200 becquerels value, and that's related to 28% of lung cancers in Canada, versus 94% of the housing stock being under the guideline value and 72% of all radon-related lung cancers being attributable to homes in that range. The bulk of the burden really remains below what we're currently talking about in terms of the Health Canada guideline.
This very point is something that we've addressed in a new paper. I want to make it clear that this work has not been published yet. It's currently under review, but it's not in the scientific literature and it has not been peer-reviewed. We looked at a bunch of different threshold values. It's really just a line in the sand that we're drawing when we say that 200 is the level or 100 is the level. We took that line in the sand and drew it at 600, 500, 400, 200, 100, and 50 becquerels to see whether or not we could still see a clear distinction between high and low radon areas in B.C. with respect to lung cancer mortality trends when we drew that line in the sand in different places.
Indeed, if you look at the far right-hand side, that top plot shows you lung cancer mortality trends in men and in women at a threshold value of 50 becquerels per metre cubed, and you can see that the trends are still distinct from one another. We still see that sharp increase in lung cancer mortality in women in the high radon areas.
In the final slide, the key message again is that these are very limited administrative data. This is something we've done as a surveillance exercise. It was really an exercise we undertook because a lot of the evidence we use in Canada to build our policy comes from places other than Canada. We're pulling together studies that have happened in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere. We really wanted to show some hard-hitting data from the Canadian context.
Again, most radon-related lung cancers in Canada happen below the current guideline of 200 becquerels per metre cubed. We see clear temporal trends by radon risk areas of British Columbia. We have not repeated similar analyses elsewhere in Canada, but I wouldn't be surprised to see similar results. The trends that we see at 200 becquerels per metre cubed persist when we drop that threshold to 50 becquerels per metre cubed. This is really supportive of that idea of ALARA, or “as low as reasonably achievable”. As Tom said, the way to pursue ALARA in Canada is really through widespread changes to our national building code to protect the population into the future.
We have estimated that it would take about 75 years to turn over the entire residential building stock in Canada, or most of it, but at the end of that 75 years, you would have a radon-resistant building stock and a population that was well protected.
Finally, there does appear to be a difference between men and women in terms of risk.
Thank you very much for your time.
Jason R. Pantarotto
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Jason R. Pantarotto
2015-06-16 16:45
Thank you for having me here.
My name is Jason Pantarotto. I'm the head of radiation oncology at the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa Hospital. I'm here as an expert in the treatment of lung cancer with radiation. Also, I've been involved in the provincial Cancer Care Ontario system, and I can speak to that in a my role as regional lead for radiotherapy for eastern Ontario in the Champlain LHIN, the local health integrated network of 1.3 million people. Further to that, I'm involved in a significant effort at the Ottawa Hospital to address lung cancer wait times. I'll speak to some of the challenges there.
I thought I would reserve my comments for this afternoon to the four components of the resolution passed by the committee.
In terms of the main causes of lung cancer beyond smoking, I think the speakers today have addressed many of those, but I want to make further comments and address as well some of the questions brought up in the last hour.
There are several agents, both man-made and natural, that can cause lung cancer. Many of the industrial agents used in the last 100 years can be inhaled, but frankly, it's difficult to assess the risk of each individual agent. There is clear evidence gathered over the last several decades that agents such as asbestos, diesel fuel, silica dust, and arsenic, whether breathed in or ingested, can cause lung cancer specifically, but there is a latent period of many years between exposure and the actual development of lung cancer.
The findings often show that the insults from these agents work synergistically with the effects of cigarette smoking. Therefore, you see higher rates of lung cancer in smokers rather than non-smokers, given the same exposure. For many industrial exposures, with the effect of cigarette smoking and the fact that it was really so prevalent over the last 60 or 70 years—so many people smoked—it's really quite difficult to tease out the actual impact of many industrial toxins that are out there.
Specific to radon, which of course is not an industrial agent but, as we've heard today, a naturally occurring substance in the earth's crust caused by the natural breakdown of uranium, personally I believe that Health Canada has very good documentation that can be found on their website, but with my patients, and even with my colleagues and my friends and neighbours, radon testing is really not a priority for the general population.
In fact, you can ask yourselves this: how many of you have had your own homes tested for radon? If not, why not? I suspect we have a number of good answers. I think costs are one of the barriers, and if it's a struggle to get people to put four dollars' worth of batteries into a smoke detector, then how do we get people to perform a test, whether it's $99 or $30 or what have you, plus all the things that potentially might need to be done to your home? If there is a synergistic effect between radon and cigarette smoking, then in fact for those populations who smoke more, which typically are those with reduced socio-economic status or less education, their barriers to access or to perform radon testing and then do something about it are arguably even higher.
Moving on to fundraising challenges, there is a general lack of awareness of how prevalent and serious lung cancer is, even amongst health care professionals. With few survivors and hence few advocates to promote research programs, we really haven't been able to get significant fundraising programs to the levels observed for other cancer types. Then again, smoking rates are higher in those segments of the population that I just mentioned, those with a reduced socio-economic status, and historically those groups have not been able to do a good job advocating for themselves, for obvious reasons.
With respect to research related to the causes of lung cancer for men and women, I think there are a number of established causes, cigarette smoking being by far and away number one on that list. I see a lot of research being done on the treatment of lung cancer, which we've heard a little bit about today, and also in terms of prevention and effective screening.
I think screening is key, but it has to be an effective screening program. In Ontario and various other jurisdictions across Canada we have established screens for cancers such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colorectal cancer, but if we look at the latest data for Ontario, of eligible women from 2011 to 2013, 62% underwent screening for cervical cancer. For the same period, 59% of eligible women underwent screening, and for colorectal cancer it was much lower, in the range of 30%, despite the fact that colorectal cancer is the number two cancer killer, if you will, in Canada. It's number two of course, with lung cancer being number one. All of that data comes from the Cancer System Quality Index, published by the Cancer Quality Council of Ontario.
To finish off, the emerging best practices for screening was the last item in the resolution. I think we've heard a lot of good information today about how there is some firm evidence behind performing low-dose CT scanning in high-risk populations. I think when you have a screening program, there's a lot of depth there that needs to be addressed. There's accreditation of each facility and the staff that works within them, database management, a recall system for suspicious nodules because you're going to find all sorts of things once you start looking, surveillance clinics, and then of course access to timely lung biopsy. Integration is key.
In Ottawa and the Ottawa area, which has a fairly affluent and well-educated population, according to 2011 data, the time from having an abnormal CT scan to getting treatment for your lung cancer was 117 days for the 90th percentile. That's in Ottawa and that's the story all across the country for various reasons. When you get into some of these other populations, they have a tougher time getting screened once a screening system is set up and a tougher time getting biopsies. That time is even longer.
I just want to finish off in terms of the segments of the population that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government: aboriginals, the military, incarcerated individuals, and the RCMP. There is evidence in some subgroups of the aboriginal population that smoking rates are high. For the population in Nunavut, and specifically this comes from studies from Professor Kue Young at the University of Alberta, indigenous populations that live around the Arctic Circle in various countries have higher lung cancer rates than do pretty much everyone else in the world. The aboriginal population in Canada specifically seemed to have even higher rates.
Similarly in notable journals like Cancer there is published evidence—though I didn't find any Canadian evidence—that there are higher rates of lung cancer amongst veterans in the American military and Australian military, and that if they get lung cancer, there is a higher likelihood they will die from the disease. I would not be surprised if we saw similar results if studies were performed on the Canadian veteran population, or if they have been performed and I just don't know about them. I would not be surprised if we saw exactly the same thing.
I'll leave it at that, because I believe I'm out of time.
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