This winter, Sea to Sky students may notice some odd black disks hidden around schools. They aren't hockey pucks or spy cameras, but a new initiative by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to test for radon levels in the area.
"We thought it would be a good idea to work with the schools and check things out as a way of reassuring ourselves," said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, Medical Health Officer for VCH. "We don't think there's a major risk, but we don't know until we test. We are also hoping that if parents are concerned about this testing, that they also test their homes."
Radon is naturally occurring, odourless and colourless. Produced from the decay of uranium in rocks, soil and water, the long-term exposure to the gas can have negative effects on health. According to Health Canada, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.
Concentration levels of radon in the VCH area are lower than the provincial average: about 2.5 per cent of homes in the coastal region test above acceptable levels, as opposed to eight per cent for B.C. A 2007 study of the Squamish-Whistler area tested around 80 houses with none reporting elevated concentrations.
Still, Ian Currie, director of operations for the Sea to Sky School District, said the decision to participate in this initiative was the right thing to do.
"We're going to do all of our schools. (VCH) was willing to pay for the whole thing, so we thought we should do the whole district," he said. "We want to know if there's a problem within our facilities, and... it helps us with our student safety, so at the end of the day, it's a win-win really."
The hope is that by doing testing in schools, VCH will raise awareness, thereby encouraging parents and others to test their homes for radon.
Because the gas finds its way into buildings through cracks in the foundation, it's best to place detectors in the basements or main floors; rooms that are closest to the ground.
As for the schools, even though they aren't anticipating finding high levels of radon, they get to ensure their students are studying in a safe building.
"There's so many different things to be concerned about and what I'm pleased to see is that Vancouver Coastal put it on their radar.," said Kate Roddick, District Parent Advisory Council president. "They've worked with School District 48 saying, we've tested government buildings, we've done different monitoring in public environments, we should test in the schools as well. I see it as an extension of their public-service approach."
Detectors will be installed at the beginning of January, while students are out on holidays. They will remain in location for three months. After that, they'll be collected and schools will be told the results in May or June.
If any schools are found to have elevated concentrations, remediation is simple, and does not require any closures.
"Often the mitigation is not that expensive," said Lysyshyn. "Radon is a gas found near the ground and if you can provide somewhere for that gas to go, like a pipe, the gas will go there. It doesn't require a renovation, that's why we call it remediation."