When it comes to Canada’s National Radon Action Month in November, the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation has already more than done its part.
Since 2008, the community, which covers about 134 square kilometers in Quebec, about a 90-minute ride from Ottawa, has aggressively tested for the odorless, colorless radioactive gas in nearly 95 percent of its on-reserve homes – and then taken on the task of improving all of them. Of the more than 440 homes tested, 180 came up with radon levels above what Health Canada now considers too high – 200 becquerels per cubic meter (200 Bq/m³).
The findings did not surprise the First Nation leadership, based in Maniwak. Already, the community has been struggling with a “radioactive” problem with their water.
In 2000, almost 60 percent of the community’s homes were determined to have dangerously high levels of natural uranium in their water supplies. The community would end up paying almost $170,000 every year since then to supply drinkable bottled water. Recently a safe local source of water has been found and residents are encourage to use that source, but many aspects of the uranium-in-the-water incident left a bad taste with community members. When tackling the issue of radon, the band leaders did not want to repeat that experience. They’ve ended up making homes healthier while creating a radon expertise being tapped by other communities within and outside First Nations.
“When the water issue came up,” recalled band Chief Gilbert Whiteduck, “Health Canada didn’t have a very good communication strategy.” The first word that came out was don’t drink the water and don’t let your pets drink the water. Then almost immediately came the announcement that it was ok for pets, since they have shorter lives anyway.
“It was idiotic,” said Whiteduck, not mincing words. “Everyone was in a panic.”
“There was no real technique to actually solve the problem,” added Marcel Brascoupe, a band member who was assistant community service director at the time. “There was a lot of frustration in the community.”
Then came the questions about using bottled water and the safety with the plastic bottles and also delivering the five liter jugs of water which are hard for an elderly person to bring inside and can easily freeze if someone is not home.
Trying to find systems to handle the uranium in the water left the community both wary and ready when it took on radon.
Modest radon testing done in about 85 homes in the 1990s already showed the likelihood the community would need mitigation for homes, explained Branscoupe. In the mid-90s, though, the radon “actionable” trigger level was much higher – 800 Bq/m³. While many of the homes ranked above 200 Bq/m³, few hit that higher level.
Courtesy Marcel Brascoupe
What radon mitigation looks like.
When Health Canada issued new guidelines with lower levels, Brascoupe and others recognized that their community homes would have a problem. Of those homes originally tested, 16 hit the new “actionable” levels.
Long-term exposure to high levels of radon has been linked to lung cancer. In fact, other than smoking, it is the second highest cause of lung cancer in Canada and the United States and the highest cause – ahead of even second-hand smoke – for non-smokers.
The announcement of this environmental health concern had to be done with more finesse and planning than the water issue, the band council knew. Two decisions by the band became critical to dealing with radon in the community. One was that all homes needed to be tested – unless homeowners declined – and two was that there had to be a plan, with financing, in place to fix the problems when they were found.
Health Canada wanted to test only some of the homes, Whiteduck recalled. “We told them, ‘No, we were testing them all.’” Initially, the band funded the tests through its Aboriginal Affairs money so all homes could be tested.
The timing, though, turned out to be right for the community to find federal funding. It was just after the 2008 recession hit that this issue came to light. By quickly creating a plan of action for training, testing and mitigation systems, the band was able to tap stimulus money. One of the investments was in training of Kitigan Zibi members to do the testing and to install the radon mitigation systems.
“There was not a lot of expertise in Canada at the time,” Brascoupe said. “We brought two experts from the U.S. to actually train our community members.”
Ten people were trained. “That type of expertise became something that was exportable to other First Nations,” Brascoupe added.
Brascoupe himself has since become a certified trainer and is certified to do radon testing and mitigation. He retired from his job with the band in 2011 and has become a private general contractor specializing in radon issues. The trained band members are his staff. “I’m the only Canadian trainer who actually trains contractors both on-reserve and off- reserve.”
He also was a founding member of the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.
Radon, Brascoupe learned, can enter a home through any crack in the foundation. Trapped inside, it tends to accumulate, especially in the lower levels of a building. In his own home, for example, the highest radon levels were in the basement – where his children’s bedrooms were.
That’s not unusual for reserve homes, Whiteduck said. Most need to make full use of all spaces and many homes house more people than might be the norm outside the reserve.
Courtesy Marcel Brascoupe
Macel Brascoupe of the radon mitigation group.
Brascoupe said because he had to deal with the radon problems in his own home – and because his children were in that highest risk area – he understands the fears and frustrations of others. “It’s something that I can relate to – their concerns, their frustrations – because I’ve done that myself. There’s a sense of panic there; I realized I had a problem and my children were living in the basement.”
To date, all but one of the homes identified as being high in radon levels has had a mitigation system installed. Those systems involve installing a pipe into a home’s basement that then pulls air – and radon – out and away under the basement floor. It counteracts, too, the natural suction in winter when homes are heated and the warm air draws the radon, formed in the ground, up into the home.
With the mitigation system, Brascoupe said, “We’re going to be sucking radon directly underneath the floor before it gets to the home.”
The added benefit of this system has been to reduce humidity in the basements and hence mold problems in those underground spaces. Some homeowners actually thought Brascoupe’s group had broken their basement dehumidifiers when they no longer turned on constantly, he said with a chuckle.
Within three years from testing, almost all of the Kitigan Zibi community homes needing the mitigation system have it, but the work is not done. New homes are being built with the ability to have the radon mitigation system easily installed, should the home test high for radon, and the band is seeking funding to install mitigation in some older homes for which owners originally declined the upgrade.
In the coming year, Brascoupe, too, will be busy doing training sessions across Canada, in Toronto and Winnipeg, and in the Yukon, New Brunswick and Quebec.
As now one of Canada’s radon experts, the Kitigan Zibi band member has some simple advice for all homeowners: “The only way to know is to test; radon is odorless, colorless, tasteless, you don’t know it’s there unless you test. And to test is so simple, there should be no reason your not doing it.”
See a presentation given by Marcel Branscoupe at a radon conference in France here.