Radon gas is one of many pollutants that can cause or contribute to sick building syndrome (SBS). Sick building syndrome is a condition that is frequently misunderstood and often misdiagnosed in favour of other illnesses that could display similar symptoms however it is a very real threat to health. Someone with sick building syndrome could display any one or several of a number of symptoms including headache, dizziness, extreme tiredness, nausea, aches & pains and irritation of skin, eyes and throat. All of these are symptoms found in a whole host of other diseases, but the key to diagnosing sick building syndrome is that they are linked to being in a particular building. Symptoms may start within an hour or entering the building, and the sufferer will see a significant improvement in well-being shortly after leaving the building.
Sick building syndrome is caused by contaminants within the building that directly negatively affect the air quality, which then causes illness in people working or living in that building. The symptoms vary because there are multiple different substances that can cause problems including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, asbestos, man-made fibres, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and Radon.
How does Radon gas contribute to sick building syndrome?
Radon gas is a naturally occurring and is created when uranium decays into polonium and radon. When you think of uranium you might consider it to be something that is mined deep underground and then kept in secure containers but the reality is that uranium is present in small quantities in our soil, and wherever there is uranium radon will be created. Radon gas then is released from the soil and is present in very small quantities in our atmosphere, however if it is released from the soil into our homes it can become trapped and build up, potentially causing serious health problems.
Radon gas is not present in our homes because of any commercial action – it is happening completely naturally – but this does not make it any less deadly. Radon gas can seep in from the soil through cracked flooring and houses in low-lying areas and with basements are particularly at risk. It is colourless, odorless and tasteless and cannot be detected by any human sense; additionally at room temperature it becomes heavier than air which means is likely to become trapped and build up until it reaches dangerous levels.
Radon gas enters the lungs and continues to decay further, emitting alpha particles, a type of radiation as it does so. These alpha particles can damage cells in the lungs and if the wrong part of the DNA is damaged this can lead to uncontrolled cell division which forms a tumour. Within Canada 16% of lung cancer deaths are attributed to radon gas exposure (source: www.hc-sc.gc.ca) making it the second highest cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoke. Smokers smoking at home are especially at risk because of the combined effects of both radon and the cigarette smoke.
How can we detect radon gas?
To test for radon gas you can either purchase a kit to test at home or you can bring in a professional. If you do use a professional, it is recommended that you use someone who has been on the Canadian National Radon Proficiency Program. It is recommended that if after measuring your radon levels exceed 200 becquerels per cubic metre (200 Bq/m³) you take immediate remedial measures to lower the risk to health.
If you do need to reduce the radon gas levels in your home or business the most common method used is ASD – Active Soil Depressurisation. ASD uses a pipe and fan to pull radon that builds up under the house out into the atmosphere to prevent it reaching dangerous levels.
If you are concerned about your radon gas levels or sick building syndrome in general, your next step is to get a qualified professional to come round to do a survey and check for contaminants.