HUNTER RIVER - When Lynn Douglas’s husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, it came about 30 years after he gave up smoking
© The Guardian
Lynn Douglas stands outside her home where radon tests found levels that were more than five times higher than the acceptable limit.
That led to the couple talking about testing their home near Hunter River for radon, which turned up in levels more than five times higher than Health Canada uses as a guideline.
Douglas’s husband, Andrew Wells, died in October, about a month after his diagnosis and before the testing was done.
When Douglas got the results they caught her by surprise.
“I’m a fairly well informed person. It just wasn’t on my radar,” she said.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the decay of uranium and the amount present depends on an area’s geology. The gas is odourless, colourless and tasteless so the only way to find it is through testing.
Prolonged exposure to radon can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer and Health Canada estimates about 16 per cent of lung cancer deaths in Canada are related to exposure to the gas.
Wells, who served as a private secretary to former premier Alex Campbell, slept in the couple’s basement where testing found levels of the radioactive gas were 1132 becquerels per cubic metre.
Health Canada sets 200 becquerels per cubic metre as the acceptable level.
After Douglas tested the air in her house, her son who lives nearby did the same and found the radon levels in his home were even higher, although he used a different testing instrument.
Douglas took a three-month average over the winter and since getting the results she contacted someone from New Brunswick who does radon remediation work, although that work hasn’t been done yet.
After what she found in her home, Douglas said there needs to be more public awareness about the issue and she is encouraging others to get their homes tested.
“We all know that we should have smoke detectors and we should have mammograms and all that stuff, but we don’t seem to know that we should be checking our houses for radon.”
Since finding the elevated radon levels, Douglas said she got a chest X-ray that was clear, although her and her husband weren’t the only ones who spent a lot of time in the basement.
“I worry about my kids who grew up in this house,” she said.
P.E.I. is no stranger to radon and the provincial government released the results of a survey of schools, hospitals, manors and other buildings in 2008 and 2009. That survey found elevated levels in several buildings that required remediation work to fix the problem.
Since then, tests have twice shown that radon levels at Souris Consolidated School were above the acceptable level.
Despite those cases, a radon study Health Canada conducted showed only 3.5 per cent of 116 results from P.E.I. had higher than acceptable levels and none were higher than 600 becquerels per cubic metre.
Nunavut was the only province or territory that had fewer cases found in the survey and P.E.I.’s results were well below those found in New Brunswick, where there was the highest rate of elevated levels.
More than 20 per cent of the returned tests in New Brunswick showed higher than acceptable results.
Cliff Shaw, an earth sciences professor at the University of New Brunswick, said P.E.I.’s geology means radon isn’t a widespread problem because there is little uranium underground, although there can be deposits that contain traces of the mineral and can lead to elevated radon levels.
“Anyone that’s concerned should be checking,” he said.
The Health Canada survey showed radon wasn’t a widespread problem in P.E.I., but Shaw said there is no guarantee it hit all the hot spots.
“In fact we know that they can’t be because they’re just so limited in their distribution,” he said.
For Douglas, she hasn’t tested for radon in other parts of her house besides the basement and she said she didn’t know how worried she was about the gas being in the living areas.
“The damage has been done,” she said.
And while she suspects radon played a part in her husband’s cancer, Douglas isn’t blaming anyone for not telling her about the potential dangers.
“I just want people to know,” she said.