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Responding to high radon levels in schools – the need for good communication

This week a school in Kanata, Ontario, near Ottawa, was the site of an unfortunate demonstration in how not to respond to a high radon level. Radon is known to be the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Much work continues by Health Canada, and many public interest organizations including CELA, to encourage radon testing in homes, schools, child care centres, and indeed all indoor spaces.

CBC News reported that test results in Jack Donohue Elementary School indicated high radon levels, that is, above the federal guideline of 200 Bequerels per cubic metre (200 Bq/m3).

In response, teachers at the school held a form of “work refusal” by conducting classes outside all day.

It was a sunny spring day – a time when UV radiation is often the most extreme, as it was that day in Kanata. Apparently sunscreen was inconsistently applied and several students went home with serious sunburns. As most parents know, severe sunburns during childhood create elevated risk for later development of skin cancer.

This response was unwarranted. Unfortunately, it appears that poor communication about the implications of the radon test and associated lung cancer risk contributed inadvertently to an increased skin cancer risk in some children.

While the federal government’s guideline is the 200 Bq/m³ radon level, it is accompanied by recommendations for how to respond. First however is the need to recognize that the lung cancer risk from radon arises from long-term exposure. Taking children out of the school for a single day would likely make no difference at all.

Health Canada recommends that if levels are higher than the guideline of 200 Bq/m³, a building should be remediated within two years. Where levels are over 600 Bq/m³, the recommendation is to act sooner, within a year.

Several radon tests were conducted at different locations in the Kanata school. Some were over 200, others were over 600, indicating that remediation should probably be planned for this year. It could reasonably occur during the summer months alongside any other building maintenance.

Nobody wants to increase their risk of any form of cancer and testing schools for radon levels should continue across the country. But good information about risk is crucial when high levels are found.

CAREX Canada has recently reported on school testing efforts and found that Quebec is alone among Canadian provinces and territories to have mandatory radon testing in schools. Good progress has also occurred in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Yukon, with all schools tested at least once since Health Canada’s guideline was lowered to 200 Bq/m³ in 2007. The laggards are British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Manitoba with low rates of school testing although some school districts or individual schools have undertaken testing on their own initiative.

As the Kanata example demonstrates, testing is only the first step. When results come in, they should be publicly available. If above-guideline levels are found, effective communication is essential explaining the nature of the risk and the steps needed to address it. Most important, high levels should be addressed through effective radon mitigation. Parents should also be strongly encouraged to test their homes.