With the COVID-19 pandemic on the wane, health officials are now turning their attention back to more routine matters, like radon testing in schools.
Parents of students across the Okanagan this week received a letter from Interior Health informing them of a precautionary pilot project to test for radon gas in educational facilities.
Interior Health is supplying test kits, which look a bit like hockey pucks, to school districts and independent schools, which will have their own staff place the devices and monitor them.
While the program wasn’t inspired by any new concerns, testing for radon gas in homes has become more commonplace in recent years as the cancer risks became more well known.
“According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, radon levels are generally higher in the Interior region. It’s important people are aware of the risks of radon and what can be done to reduce those risks,” said IH medical health officer Dr. Silvina Mema in a statement.
“Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas without colour or odour. It comes from the ground, and it often enters and stays in buildings with low ventilation. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. The only way to determine indoor levels of radon is to test.
“Exposure is particularly concerning for young children with developing lungs and a high breathing rate. Exposure to radon gas is a preventable health risk so Interior Health medical health officers have asked school management to test for radon, and to ensure that levels are as far below the Canadian guideline of 200 becquerels per cubic metre as reasonably possible.” (Becquerels are units of radioactivity.)
Todd Manuel, superintendent of the Penticton-based Okanagan Skaha School District, said test kits will be deployed in every building under his watch.
“Ultimately, our school district has the responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all students, staff and occupants in all of our facilities,” he said in an email.
“Pucks stay in designated areas for at least 91 days during the winter season, and then results are reviewed. If there are elevated levels of radon detected, mitigation strategies are put into place. These typically involve airflow adjustments such as changes to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system settings, adding cold air returns to crawl spaces, or sealing basement floor openings, and continuing to monitor to confirm levels have lessened.”
Manuel said any unexpected results will be shared with the affected school’s safety committee and its broader community.
Dr. Mema suggested parents and community members follow suit.
“While the Interior Health project focuses on testing for radon at schools, this setting only accounts for part of the total exposure people may receive. It is important to note that radon levels may be high in other buildings, and we encourage people to test their homes, work and leisure spaces for radon,” she said.
Long-term radon test kits can be purchased from the BC Lung Association, while more information about radon gas can be found online at www.interiorhealth.ca/health-and-wellness/environmental-health-and-hazards/radon-gas.
An estimated 30% of homes in the Okanagan contain levels of radon gas higher than the Canadian guideline, according to an online interactive map released in 2021 by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Radon gas is produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks that are more commonly found underneath communities in the B.C. interior.