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Federal Credibility on Radon Undermined by Sluggish Action on Canada Labour Code

We all know about the latency of carcinogens. Many years – literally decades - can pass between exposure and cancer onset. The science is typically highly complex and there is often uncertainty about cause and effect. But for a few carcinogens, including radon, benzene, asbestos, and others, uncertainty has long since been erased. We know they cause cancer and we need to act.

When it comes to the federal government updating the Canada Labour Code radon limit, a near-carcinogenic latency period continues. Already aware in 2013 of the rock-solid evidence linking radon to lung cancer, the federal government committed to reducing the CLC radon reference level. Several similar assurances have followed. They still haven’t updated it.

Recall that radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, causing 16% of lung cancer deaths in Canada. In Ontario alone, radon causes over 1300 new lung cancer cases per year and 850 deaths.

The CLC radon limit is woefully out of date; based on evidence from at least twenty years ago. Sitting at 800 Bequerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3), this level is four times higher than Health Canada’s Radon Guideline reference level of 200 Bq/m3 or the level at which everyone else (in homes, schools, child care centres, etc.) is urged to take steps to mitigate radon exposure in indoor environments.

As absurd as it sounds, it seems necessary to point out to the federal Department of Labour that the evidence of harm from radon is as relevant to federal workplaces as it is to all other indoor environments.

Note that none of this has to do with worker exposure to radon or other forms of radiation within the nuclear fuel chain – whether in mines, uranium processing, nuclear plants, etc. The Nuclear Safety and Control Act addresses those exposures.

The CLC radon limit, included in that statute’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, is the only legally enforceable protection against radon that exists for those who work for the federal government or in federally-regulated workplaces, that is, in thousands upon thousands of indoor locations across the country.

The CLC limit is also out of step with the level of 200 Bq/m3 in the workplace-focused NORM (naturally-occurring radioactive materials) Guidelines.

The federal government, primarily within Health Canada, has otherwise demonstrated longstanding attention to radon and provided important leadership in multiple areas. These actions are entirely appropriate given the relative importance of radon as a public health risk.

We have written to the Honourable Patty Hajdu, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, seeking action on this long overdue matter. Six years of delay and inaction on the CLC radon limit undermines the federal government’s credibility in addressing radon and intensifies the already significant challenge of seeking public uptake of radon awareness messages.

Infographic source: Health Canada