Among indoor pollutants, radon is a top priority for two key reasons. First, scientific evidence clearly links radon to lung cancer. Second, many Canadians are affected. In Ontario alone, radon causes over 1300 new lung cancer cases per year and 850 deaths. Compare that to carbon monoxide, another deadly indoor pollutant that kills an average of eleven people in Ontario every year.
Of these two silent killers one is immediate with the source generally well known: poor functioning or maintenance of a fuel-burning appliance. In contrast, death from radon seems a distant statistical chance. Its source is also somewhat vague: arising in some homes but not others and resulting from the radioactive decay of uranium in underlying soil and rock that seeps through a building foundation.
Another key difference can be expense. A carbon monoxide detector (now mandatory in Ontario homes) and a radon test cost about the same. When the alarm sounds and everyone hopefully gets to safety, the cost of addressing a carbon monoxide problem is typically one of necessary maintenance. For a high radon level, fixing the problem is likely much more expensive, ranging between $1000 and $3500.
Since 2008, Health Canada’s National Radon Program has shown important leadership in multiple areas related to radon testing, mitigation, professional certification, and public outreach.
Despite all this effort, many respond with indifference and/or reluctance. The cost of radon mitigation deters many Canadians from even testing their homes when results might reveal an expensive problem to address a distant and uncertain threat.
CELA and others have long held that the logical next for the National Radon Program is helping Canadians pay for mitigation. Our advocacy has focused on either a tax credit or a grant. In a rudimentary analysis we conclude that such a program would be revenue neutral; the cost of a tax credit or grant to help Canadians with mitigation costs would be offset by increased corporate and sales tax revenues. We estimated higher tax revenue to provincial over federal coffers not even accounting for provincial savings in health care costs from lung cancer prevention.
Importantly, Health Canada is undertaking a comprehensive economic analysis expanding upon work published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 2018. Researchers found, just based on lung cancer mortality, that for high radon areas of Canada it would be cost effective health policy to take action, either in the form of tax credits or grants, in order to increase rates of radon mitigation. Continuing this analysis will help provinces and territories understand they should take action on radon to reduce health care costs and not just as a matter of addressing radon in their Building Codes.
At CELA, we have twice canvassed radon law and policy issues, for all of Canada in 2014, and last year updating this scan for Canada and looking at best practices in Europe. Across Canada, we found various options for incentivising radon mitigation. For example, the multi-stakeholder collaborative Take Action on Radon partnered with CARST to offer a total of $10,000 for a Radon Reduction Sweepstakes that gave contest winners up to $1000 towards mitigation costs.
Taking a page from the energy efficiency sector, we suggested loan programs or on-bill financing to assist homeowners with large up-front costs to be paid back through property tax or utility bills. Numerous models exist in the US but this approach is rare in Canada with the exception of programs in Manitoba and Yukon to address energy upgrades and home repairs, respectively. Both programs include the ability to finance radon mitigation.
We also found multiple examples in Europe where incentive programs for radon testing and/or mitigation already exist. In the UK, for example, commercial buildings can offset the costs of radon mitigation as a business deduction. In high radon areas such as Cornwall government programs have distributed over one million free radon detection kits. Denmark, Finland, and parts of Switzerland provide tax credits for radon mitigation, Norway had a similar program in the past, and Finland also operates a subsidized radon test kit program. The Swiss cantons have born the costs of testing many buildings in their jurisdiction.
Other analyses show that updated radon provisions in provincial/territorial Building Codes, (particularly necessary in Ontario’s outdated Code), are necessary for reducing radon exposure over the long term. In the meantime, governments can use taxation and/or spending powers to help Canadians with radon mitigation so we can all spend less on health care costs for radon-induced lung cancer.