Your Health

Invisible, odourless radon gas takes heavy human toll, experts say

Photo of periodic table showing Radon element.
Photo of Diana Doyle-Zebrun. DR. LISA RICHARDS
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, November 10, 2017

As a medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, I’m always looking for opportunities to raise awareness about potential health risks and how they can be avoided.

Radon Action Month, which comes along every November, offers just such an occasion.

You may already know some things about radon. For example, you may know it is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas that is formed in the ground and finds its way into homes through foundation cracks. You may also know that radon can be difficult to detect. That’s because it is indiscernible to the senses – you can’t see it, touch it or smell it.

But there may be some things about radon that you don’t know.

For example, you may not know that radon is a leading cause of lung cancer. And you may also be unaware of the fact that it tends to show up in higher levels here in Manitoba than it does in many other parts of the country. In fact, experts say that between 10 and 30 per cent of Winnipeg homes may have radon levels exceeding 200 becquerels per metre cubed (Bq/m³), which is considered unsafe according to Health Canada’s guideline.

And that can put the health of you and your loved ones at risk.

Consider this: The Canadian Cancer Society projects that about 910 Manitobans will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year. Some health experts have estimated that as many as one in five of those cases could be caused by radon gas in our province. That means radon could be responsible for as many as 182 cases of lung cancer in Manitoba this year alone.

Radon’s effects are especially harmful for people who smoke because the combined effects of radon exposure and smoking create a risk for lung cancer that is greater than the two separately.

The baseline risk for a smoker getting lung cancer is about 12 per cent, meaning that slightly more than one in ten people who smoke can expect to get cancer. But when combined with long-term, high radon exposure at 800 becquerels per metre cubed (Bq/m³), the risk jumps to about 30 per cent. Meanwhile, the lung cancer risk for a non-smoker exposed to that same high radon level is about five per cent.

Any way you look at it, the evidence suggests radon is taking a toll in terms of human suffering in this province. And it is also taking a bite out of the provincial health-care budget. It is estimated that treating lung cancer in Manitoba costs about $31,550 per case. With the estimated number of lung cancer cases attributable to radon this year, this adds up to $5.7 million dollars in spending.
So what can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones?

Start by getting your home tested. There are a number of options available, including do-it-yourself radon test kits. If you are worried you may not be able to deploy a kit properly, hire a professional. You can find Canadian professional radon mitigators listed on the Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program (C-NRPP) at You can also purchase low-cost testing kits through the Canadian Cancer Society by calling toll-free at 1-888-532-6982 or going online at

And don’t worry about the cost of mitigation before you test your home. Once you home has been tested, you can then determine your options for fixing the problem. A certified radon professional can provide you with options, including some lower-cost fixes, depending on the levels of radon detected in your home. Manitoba Hydro offers a loan for a mitigation system when installed with a C-NRPP professional, and for a limited time, Take Action on Radon, an initiative of Health Canada, is running a sweepstakes for $1,000 back on a radon reduction method installed in your home. Find more information on the Take Action on Radon website visit

One last thought. If your home does test positive for radon levels above the guideline, don’t panic. You can still take corrective measures for your health, as the risk of developing lung cancer is influenced by numerous factors, including the length of time you have been exposed to radon and whether you smoke. Of course, the sooner you get your home tested, the sooner you can start taking those corrective measures.

Dr. Lisa Richards is a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, November 10, 2017.

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