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Encouraging radon policy advocacy in the child care sector

As you might expect, child care professionals have busy schedules and a lot of important safety rules to follow. Not included in this work is radon safety but it can and should be. We are encouraging child care professionals to advocate for updating child care licensing rules to require radon testing and mitigation in child care facilities.

On the frontline in ensuring the health and safety of children in their care, these busy people must follow many rules spelled out in provincial or territorial child care licensing laws and regulations. Local public health departments often inspect child care operations and likewise have public health laws to follow.

Since child care facilities are located indoors and are workplaces, they are subject to rules governing Building Codes as well as occupational health and safety.

Across all of these areas of law, radon is almost never addressed with the exception of Building Code rules that apply to new construction or major renovations.

Together with the Canadian Child Care Federation and in a Health Canada-funded project led by the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, we recently looked at relevant law and policy related to radon in child care settings.

Radon remains a poorly recognized yet serious health risk. To complement several years of awareness-raising in the child care sector, an overall goal of this project was to assist child care professionals in advocacy for stronger radon protection measures.

To this end, bilingual project outcomes included a webinar, a fact sheet, and a policy briefing note, as well as an exploratory meeting with several child care sector leaders in British Columbia.

Radon is a naturally-occurring, invisible and odourless radioactive soil gas that can build up to harmful levels in indoor spaces. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer in Canada and the only way to know it’s there is to test for it. Despite the known risks and the availability of testing and mitigation measures, most child care facilities in Canada are not tested.

We have noted four possible legal or policy tools to address radon in this sector including via licensing rules, Building Codes, and the rules governing both occupational health and safety and public health. We note room for improvement or more effective implementation.

The most promising area is reform of child care licensing regulations. Already a carefully regulated area, the focus in licensing regulations is almost exclusively on avoiding or responding to acute or immediate hazards. Whether it is sanitation, food preparation, communicable diseases, or injuries, the regulations do not address chronic hazards like radon.

Compare this to indoor smoking bans that address acute harm such as avoiding asthma triggers in sensitive children. But the longer term/chronic health risk, as with radon, is lung cancer. In encouraging radon advocacy, it is useful to note this context of acute vs chronic risk and the reasonableness of expanding health and safety measures to address a known cause of cancer.

Hence, we are encouraging leaders in the child care sector to advocate for reform of licensing regulations and will continue to help them do so as well as celebrate their successes.

Notably, in recent efforts to address radon in the child care sector useful lessons arise. For example, among government-sponsored radon testing programs conducted in BC, Quebec, and in federal buildings across Canada, elements of success included the provision of free test kits, lots of guidance and support, and crucially, an up-front assurance that government would pay for radon mitigation if it was found to be necessary.

Results also point to the need for mandatory testing. In a study of a small number of child care centres in Winnipeg, the focus was on motivators, barriers and staff capacity to test for radon and raise radon awareness among parents. As in other studies, staff found it difficult to add something new to already busy schedules. They thought mandatory testing was needed or the issue would not be addressed.

Until mandatory requirements are in place we encourage child care programs to take the initiative and conduct a radon test. They can also raise awareness among staff and client families. Most important, they can work with colleagues and facility inspectors about modernizing child care licensing rules to include mandatory radon testing for all programs, including funding to support radon mitigation where it is necessary. If testing were a condition of licensing, all children and staff would be protected and child care managers would have clear rules to follow.