Jan. 24, 2022

Making our homes safer: Researchers work to own cancer by ridding Canadian houses of dangerous radon gas

Alberta Real Estate Foundation gift funds world-leading cancer research

An odourless, cancer-causing gas is building up in many Canadian homes. A University of Calgary radon research team, fuelled by renewed funding from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation (AREF) to the OWN.CANCER campaign, is working to change this — owning cancer through prevention and partnership.

Radioactive radon gas inhalation is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, responsible for about 88,000 cases of lung cancer in Canada since 2001. Radon is produced in the ground and normally it dilutes to virtually nothing in outside air, but our modern homes, schools and workplaces are capturing and concentrating radon to unnaturally high and cancer-causing levels in indoor air.

With concerning in-home radon exposure trends found across every Canadian province and territory, the radon research team is currently working with multiple government groups toward the inclusion of proactive radon mitigation systems in all new residential properties constructed using the 2025 Building Code.

Aaron Goodarzi

Aaron Goodarzi, Canada Research Chair for Radiation Exposure Disease and associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine

Leading the charge is UCalgary’s Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, Canada Research Chair for Radiation Exposure Disease and an associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). His work to Evict Radon is bolstered by partnerships, including a strong one with AREF, which has committed $975,000 in total to this life-saving research since 2017. A recent commitment of $325,000 to OWN.CANCER is furthering this work.

“Now that the Evict Radon study is more than five years mature, we’re in the position — thanks to the new gift from AREF — to really make a difference to how certain key stakeholders are operating, including the real estate community. Home inspectors are next on our list to engage with on this specific issue. This is one of the changemaker opportunities we have with the new funding," Dr. Goodarzi says.

Patti Morris

Patti Morris, Alberta Real Estate Foundation executive director

Courtesy: Alberta Real Estate Foundation

"Exposure to radon, which is radioactive and DNA-damaging, is overwhelmingly something that happens within the residential built environment and is avoidable,” says AREF Executive Director Patti Morris. “This project is an excellent fit with our mandate with a focus on consumer protection and healthy homes.”

Recent discoveries and success

This past September, Goodarzi, along with Joshua Taron, the associate dean (research and innovation) at the University of Calgary, and a multidisciplinary team of UCalgary cancer researchers and architects, proved that average radon gas levels in new homes in Canada are 467 per cent higher than in Sweden.

Since 1980, radon levels have consistently risen in Canada, while falling in Sweden. The causes of the changes in both countries are complex, with no single decision or event responsible for the increase.

Another 2021 publication by Goodarzi and team showed how age, gender and profession significantly impacted how quickly people learning about radon risk pursued testing in their homes. Women and health-care professionals were more likely to act quickly, while engineers, geoscientists and realtors were less likely — leaving them exposed to radon longer and increasing their risk for lung cancer.

The team is working with Dr. Linda Carlson, PhD, the Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology and a professor at CSM, to tease out why. With the new AREF gift, the team will aim to better target the way it communicates radon risk for more diverse genders and professional backgrounds.

OWNing cancer

AREF’s gift to the OWN.CANCER campaign, which will continue to support UCalgary radon research when it moves to the new Calgary Cancer Centre in 2023, brings Goodarzi and the interdisciplinary team of Evict Radon scientists another step closer to their goal of making Canadian homes safe from radon.

"Owning cancer to me is about preventing hundreds of thousands of future cancers that might arise in today’s children, tomorrow, by understanding toxic cancer-causing exposures in our environment,” Goodarzi says. “We’ll never have to deal with it in the first place if we put into place the systematic things that can prevent it."

Morris strongly agrees. “Actual prevention requires concerted action in terms of knowledge generation, knowledge implementation, and effective education and communication across sectors. In my mind, this project embodies the ideals of OWNing cancer.”

In addition to supporting research on radon awareness and promoting radon education in the real estate industry, AREF has funded a variety of projects across many faculties within the university — most recently at the Haskayne School of Business and the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, is the Canada Research Chair for Radiation Exposure Disease and an associate professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute.

Joshua Taron is the associate dean (research and innovation) and associate professor with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at UCalgary.

Linda Carlson, PhD, is the Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology, a professor in the Department of Oncology and member of the Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine and an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts.

The Calgary Cancer Centre Campaign is on a mission to OWN.CANCER by raising $250 million in support of improved research, treatment and care at Calgary’s new world-class cancer centre. This game-changing initiative is backed by three trusted community institutions: Alberta Health Services, Canada’s first and largest fully integrated provincial health system; the University of Calgary, a globally recognized leader in medical research and home to tomorrow’s health-care professionals; and the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the official fundraising partner for all 17 cancer care centres across the province. Currently under construction, the Calgary Cancer Centre will open its doors in 2023 as the largest, most comprehensive cancer centre in Canada. To donate or learn more, please visit owncancer.ca.

About the Evict Radon national study

Evict Radon is working toward educating Canadians about the harmful effects of radon gas. By testing your home with one of our research-grade radon test kits and enrolling in our UCalgary-based research study, you are helping Evict Radon-aligned researchers from across Canada to understand radon exposure and develop new ways to protect ourselves and loved ones. The Evict Radon study is supported by grants from Health Canada and the Alberta Real Estate Foundation and represents a confederation of Canadian scholars with expertise in radon biology, architecture, population health, geology and communications.

Learn more. Follow @evictradon on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.