We generally think of things that affect our indoor air quality as coming from outside or inside our home. Outdoor factors that affect our indoor air quality include pollen, exhaust, or other industrial emissions. Indoor factors, like a poorly functioning HVAC system, smoking, or cleaning materials can all contribute to poor indoor air quality. A recent study from the University of Calgary points out a growing indoor air quality concern in the form of a colourless, odourless gas known as radon.
Radon gas is released from the radioactive decay of radium, uranium, or thorium in soil and bedrock deep underground. It occurs naturally in the environment all around Canada. Your indoor air quality is affected as the gas is released – your home acts like a chimney for fumes that would otherwise be released into the environment. Radon gas most frequently collects in the lower levels of your home with inadequate ventilation, such as the basement, where it has a silent, but deadly effect on your indoor air quality.
Radon gas and your indoor air quality should concern you – it is the second highest cause of lung cancer in Canada after smoking. Radon decays quickly and puts small, radioactive particles into the air. When these are inhaled, they damage the cells that line your lungs. Long term exposure to these radon particles can lead to the development of lung cancer.
One surprising result of the study was that newer homes were found with 31% higher radon in their indoor air quality. One reason for this finding is that homes 25 years old or younger are both larger and more airtight than before. Your indoor air quality can become saturated with radon because these bigger, taller homes have more surface area to ‘call’ radon. As the air in your home warms, it creates a kind of negative pressure in the basement which has a tug on the foundation. If radon lurks underneath, it is pulled through any cracks or holes in your foundation where it can then affect your indoor air quality. Modern homes are also more airtight, making your indoor air quality systems, like your HVAC or air intake, important to keep in good repair.
If it’s colourless and odourless, how can you know if radon is affecting your indoor air quality and the health of your family? In the study, which was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, radon was found affecting the indoor air quality in over 2300 homes in the Calgary areas – that’s 1 in 8 homes, making this a common problem. The good news is that it is easy to test for radon that may be affecting your health and indoor air quality. Have a trained indoor air quality technician visit your home or business and test for radon and other factors that could be having a negative impact on your health. The World Health Organization recommends that acceptable levels of radon in your indoor air quality be 100 Bq/m3, but in Canada there are no rules requiring testing, which would ensure more people were living in homes with safe indoor air quality. While there are areas in Canada which have higher occurrences of homes with radon found in their indoor air quality, the only way to be sure of levels in your home is to be tested – often homes right next door to each other can have very different indoor radon levels, making mapping and tracking of this problem difficult. Radon testing of your indoor air quality usually takes between 7-90 days, as radon can vary from day to day or month to month.