Dr. Goodarzi Interview: The Impact of Radon on DNA

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Dr. Goodarzi Interview: The Impact of Radon on DNA

Pippa Boothman, VP of Marketing and Communications, Airthings

Thank you for coming to visit us at Airthings. Welcome to Norway. As you can see, home of fresh air, as we like to say. Maybe we can start this by you introducing yourself?

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

I'm Dr. Aaron Goodarzi. I am the leader of the evict radon confederation of scholars in Canada. I'm a professor at the University of Calgary in the west of Canada and the Canada research chair for radiation exposure disease.

 

Pippa Boothman

Great. And what can you tell me briefly about radon and why people should be monitoring radon. 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

I've been studying radiation for a very long time and specifically its effects on the DNA of our bodies and how when radiation hits our DNA, it creates damage that leads to mutations that drive our cells towards cancer. Now, radon is the number one way that most humans in their lives are exposed to that radiation. Understanding the process of DNA damage and repair and also the process of human exposure to radon really is very important for reducing the burden of cancer in society and most importantly preventing cancer in the first place. Radon is the number two cause of lung cancers globally and the leading cause among non-smokers. 

 

Pippa Boothman

What do you see is the biggest challenge for individuals understanding why they have to check for radon? 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

Radon is odorless, colorless, we can't see it. One of the biggest barriers is that because it's invisible to human senses, for people to adopt new technologies and methods of being able to sense radon in their environment. Their are very good ways of doing it. There are digital ways, there are passive ways. And by understanding how much radon you are being exposed to in your built environment, because this is really a man-made problem insofar that radon comes out of the ground and is captured and contained in our houses, but concentrated to levels that you just really do not see normally in nature. By understanding those levels, they can make informed decisions with regards to protecting their health, because nobody wants a future cancer. 

Pippa Boothman

Is everyone at the same risk of exposure to radon?

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

It's a very important question. No. For example, all children are fundamentally radiation sensitive, and so it is very important to reduce any exposure to radon and radiation generally for the youngest amongst us. Further to that, 1 in 30 adults is fundamentally radiation sensitive and will not know it. More than that though, our behavior and the nature of our properties: our houses, our schools, our work places really can influence our risk from radon exposure. So, although everyone is potential at risk, the nuances of our biology, our age, and our built environment, really dictate why some people are massively exposed and will get cancer and others not. But most of those things we can control. 

Pippa Boothman

Why are children more susceptible? 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

For several reasons. Most importantly, children are still growing, their organs are growing, their cells are dividing, and their DNA is being replicated. When you are replicating DNA it is fundamentally vulnerable to the damage caused by radiation, so that's one. Two, they are little. The exposure per unit of their mass is that much higher. They also breathe faster, they breathe two to three times faster relative to an adult. A little baby is typically breathing three times as fast to get enough oxygen to those little lungs to have the same amount. But of course, by doing so they are also inhaling much more contaminants in our air, including things like radon. And so for all those reasons, and plus children have the most life left within which childhood exposure could lead to a later in life cancer, that is the age demographic that we really do need to be focusing our efforts on to have as clean air as possible to prevent future cancer. 

Pippa Boothman

So, we are talking schools, daycares, and not just homes? 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

Everywhere children spend most of their time. Children, they are not going to work. So the youngest, it is the home environment. And then a little bit later it's the schools, the childcare facilities, aftercare programs, and so on. Even colleges and universities. For example, the university where I am, the University of Calgary has been very proactive in undertaking a systematic radon testing of every childcare facility as well as the student residences. Because you are still very radon sensitive in your late teens when you start to go to university. 

Pippa Boothman

What can you say about short-term measuring versus long-term measuring of radon? 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

That's a very important question, because there is a space for short term testing. For example, if you are following up on mitigation, you want to check your work, did it work or not, did it reduce your radon levels. Maybe you need a quick answer. But radon fluctuates quite a lot, even from hour to hour through the day. But certainly from season to season. Really, to get a good idea of your long-term radon exposure, you should be avoiding short-term testing and going with something that is giving you a longer term reading, on the order of something like 90 days. That starts to give you an idea of what your long-term exposure is. Because if it is too short, you are just as likely to get a false negative reading, telling you are safe when you are not, or a false positive reading, giving you a sense of alarm, when in fact your exposure is much less. Neither are desirable. So that is our conclusion right now, based on quite a bit of data that will come out later this year. 

Pippa Boothman

What you are doing in Alberta with your Evict Radon campaign, it's pretty amazing what you have managed to do, getting the public involved. What else can you say about that and what you are learning and what trends you are seeing?

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

Evict Radon really did start in the west of Canada in the province of Alberta. We are now going to expand a little bit further afield and eventually we have a goal to conduct our non-profit, radon testing study, which is aimed at understanding radon exposure of Canadians and reducing that as much as possible. And eventually we will be doing that across the whole country. A major component of this is to understand how the built environment really is modifying our exposure to this. And to learn what makes a very high radon house but equally what makes a very low radon house. And by understanding that, by pushing the environment, the way we design spaces to be as healthy as possible at the same time sustainable as possible. And to merge sustainability and energy efficiency, with the health of that built environment. And that is why our Evict Radon conference of scholars is not just biologists like myself. We have those who understand the built environment: architects, geologists, psychologists, population health, communication specialists, as well as policy and law. Because it is all well and good to understand it, but until that knowledge is tranlsated into the wisdom of new legislation, to make changes to, for example, building code, or the health act, or regulation of the whole process, you're not going to see a reall effect on society. And in Alberta, we have been very successful. We have worked with legislators and we have passed new legislation specifically geared at raising radon awareness but also enforcing radon testing in childcare facilities.

 

Pippa Boothman

Is there a country that you look up to in terms of how they are managing the radon conversation?

 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

There are many different parts of the world. All of them have different policies and practices. But looking towards the Nordic countries, one of the reasons we are here is to understand how certain areas here have been able to achieve less radon in newer houses, compared to older housing stocks. In Canada we have the opposite scenario, which is not something we want. Our newer houses have yet higher radon. In fact, radon levels have almost doubled in Canada with respect to the action levels. We have twice as many houses in the 21st century as we did in the mid 20th century that have unacceptably high radon. Here in the Nordic countries, in many areas we've looked at, at the researchers who have done that here, you have much less in new houses. So, what are you doing here that we are not, or what are we doing that you are not that is influencing this. By understanding this and merging two quite compatible otherwise built environments, I mean our climates are quite similar, as you can see this could easily be Canada. By understanding that, we can make changes in our part of the world that you have already enjoyed here, for the betterment of everybody

Pippa Boothman

If I measured for radon and my levels are high. What do I do? 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

So this is the good news story. There is a variety, depending on how radon is entering a home or a school or a workplace. There is a solution. These solutions have been tried and tested for quite a few decades now, and they work! We have yet to find a house that we have surveyed in our part of the world that if high in radon could not have been mitigated. At least brought low, but in most cases brought completely to safe, non-hazardous levels. You will never have a zero radon environment, that's just not how this works, but you will have levels that are so insignificant to human health that you should not worry about it. One thing always that I like to say is that no one is addicted to radon. So in terms of the big picture of things that cause lung cancer, because there is a solution, there is an easy test, this is really low hanging fruit for everybody to action to protect themselves from lung cancer, which is a devastating disease and the number one cause of cancer death on Earth. 

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

You said something earlier about how radon actually causes lung cancer.

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

The short answer is that radon is unstable. It emits a type of radiation called alpha radiation that when it hits the DNA as we inhale radon it emits that radiation, it hits the DNA of our lungs and it really shreds that DNA. If our bodies are able to partially heal that, it will create mutations and those mutations drive cancer. Change the nature of those cells so they grow uncontrollably over the course of time and cause cancer. But this is something that by just reducing the exposure does not need to happen. If you have good sensors, you do a radon test, these are all things that will give you the knowledge, and of course knowledge is power, to protect your health and that of everyone in your home, including the children.