You should also have a slide deck from me. It says “Radon and Lung Cancer” on it. I recognize I am the very last person, and I appreciate your persistence. Luckily many people have also spoken to a number of the points that I wish to discuss, so I will go very quickly over the first few slides.
I am an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. I also work at the National Collaborating Centre with Tom and Sarah, and I also run CAREX Canada, which is the carcinogen surveillance system funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. I am here because we prioritized Canadians' exposure to environmental carcinogens and the leading causes of cancer-related deaths from environmental exposures, and radon gas was by far the most significant carcinogen. I admit that when I started my research at CAREX, I had never heard of radon gas either. When I went back into the literature, I realized that over time Canada has actually played a very important role in understanding radon and lung cancer.
The data from many of the studies that were done on uranium miners, at Eldorado and even here in Ontario, has been used to determine the relationship between exposure and lung cancer. We've actually been on the forefront of this issue but very much in an academic context rather than in a public health context.
We've already discussed the fact that the WHO notes that this is a significant carcinogen. I would also like to point out that agencies around the world are coming to the conclusion that radon is more dangerous than they had previously thought. In 1993 we had a certain understanding about the relationship between radon gas and lung cancer. That's doubled. The slope that Tom was talking about used to go like this and now it goes like this. Radon is now known to be much more dangerous than we had originally thought. The reason for that is that radon is actually an alpha-particle emitter.
We are a uranium-rich country. Uranium is in the soil and as it breaks down there is a point at which it becomes a gas. That means it becomes movable within the soil. That gas itself gives off alpha radiation, which is a very dangerous form of radiation that can damage DNA. On the next slide you'll see both direct and indirect damage to DNA. This information is compliments of Dr. Aaron Goodarzi. We actually have a Canada research chair studying this at the moment in Alberta.
The next slide, on radiation and DNA damage, shows that alpha radiation is powerful. It doesn't penetrate very far, so if it hits our skin, it doesn't do as much damage as it does if it gets into our lungs. Our lungs are very sensitive. The lining of our lungs is sensitive and when the cells in them are irradiated, they get damaged. Alpha particles are very destructive. The damage is akin to having a cannon go through DNA. That kind of damage is hard to repair, and as a result the probability of genetic mutations and cancer goes up.
The next slide is on strategies for reducing risk. Just to recap, the kind of damage done by the radiation emitted from radon is significant. The damage is difficult for the body to repair once radon is in the lungs.
The next slide is on education and priority setting. Radon does exist across the country. People have developed radon-potential maps. This one is compliments of Radon Environmental where they've looked at where uranium exists and where the potential for higher-breakdown products is, although we do recognize that every home is different. Also there's a map of the United States to show that we are not alone in this and that the states that are on the border have a similar kind of radon profile to that found in Canada. We know that under our current Canadian strategies, we need to educate not just the public but ourselves. Most public health professionals have never heard of radon. When we do work out in public health units, environmental health inspectors, public health inspectors, and medical health officers are still unaware that radon is dangerous. Many bureaucrats and ministries of health are unaware that radon is dangerous.
Also health researchers are only really beginning to do work in this area across the country. In order to have building codes changed, people need to know why you're changing them. We need testing and remediation training. People need to understand why they're actually doing this kind of work.
Kelley Bush alluded to the fact that they've been tracking awareness among the population. This is done by Statistics Canada. The next slide shows a representative Canadian sample. It's been done since 2007 actually, but these are results for 2009 onward. You can see that about 10% of the population were aware of radon. That's gone up to about 30%. This is the number of people who know what radon is and can accurately describe it. We're still at around 30% of the population who know that radon can cause lung cancer.
Health Canada does recommend that everybody test their homes. The next slide, which is also using data collected by Statistics Canada, clearly shows that very few people have tested their homes. Less than 10% of Canadians across the country have tested their homes. We have had a radon awareness program since 2007, so why aren't people testing? We don't have regulatory requirements, as Kathleen Cooper stated earlier. People need to be aware and motivated to change. It's up to the consumer. We have left it up to the consumer to test their own home.
I believe things like denial, the invisible nature of the gas, and people simply being unaware contribute to this. Test kits are still not that readily available across the country. You can phone and ask where you can find them, but they're not always there. In rural regions it's much harder for people to get access to test kits. People then fear the downstream costs of remediating—i.e., I don't want to go in there because I don't know how much it's going to cost me to fix my basement. In some cases the costs can be somewhat considerable, depending on the structure of the home.
Turning to the next slide, I believe to reduce the lung cancer risk from radon gas we need more leadership. The government can legitimate this as a risk. It's something that people don't know about, and we need to take a stronger role in getting people more engaged in this topic. It's not just Health Canada; it's all levels of government—ministries of health, provinces, municipalities. We need to be training people in the trades so they know what they're doing when they're building those radon-resistant homes, and why. Why is that pipe important? Why is that fan important? Again, we need to build radon out, going forward.
Other countries have shown that providing financial assistance works. People will energy-retrofit their home because they get a rebate, but the energy retrofit does increase radon levels. There is clear evidence that this exists. The tighter your home, the more the radon gas remains in your home. In Manitoba they're doing research to look at that at the moment. In Manitoba, though, you can also now get a rebate through Manitoba Hydro to do radon remediation. Some parts of the country are starting, but we need to be offering some kind of incentive for citizens to do this.
I would also like to put in a plug for workplace exposure, because I do study workplace exposure and radon. There are places in the country where people work underground, or in basements and even ground-level buildings, where radon levels are high. Some of these are federal government workers. We need more testing and remediation for workplaces.
That's it. Thank you.