A professor of pathology at Dalhousie University's School of Medicine is helping lead a national study examining the effects of arsenic and radon exposure.
Graham Dellaire said Atlantic Canada has some of the highest levels of arsenic and radon in the country.
Radon is a radioactive gas that is released from the ground when uranium in soil and rock decays.
Dellaire told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon that radon is detected by testing the air quality of indoor spaces over a few days, or over a three-month period — what he calls the "gold standard" of testing.
Radon can accumulate in basements
Dellaire lives in Halifax and said there's good reason to test for radon in homes in the city.
"Many of them are older homes that have soil gas leaking in because they have an open basement or you have a weeping tile system on the inside," he said.
Dellaire said the radioactive gas tends to accumulate in the lower levels of homes and can reach dangerous levels in some cases, which can be a risk for families that spend time in their basements.
"A lot of people have their exercise equipment, particularly during COVID-19 lockdown, where you might be in the basement exercising and breathing in large volumes of air," he said.
Developing a new testing method
The study has received funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
Dellaire said a third of the funding will be used to develop a new method of radon testing.
That work is being undertaken by the study's co-lead, Aaron Goodarzi, an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Calgary.
Goodarzi's research is aimed at detecting extremely small amounts of radioactive lead, a breakdown product of radon, that can persist in the body for more than two decades.
Arsenic found in well water
Dellaire said arsenic, another naturally occurring substance, can be found in foods like rice and shellfish and well water.
Exposure to arsenic reduces the body's ability to fight off oxidative stress caused by factors like air pollution, smoking and obesity, which Dellaire said can increase the risk of cancers.
"Not a lot of people are still aware that arsenic is a problem and if you live on well water, which is a lot of Atlantic Canadians, you have a very high chance of having arsenic in your water," he said.
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