Radon risk communication strategies: a regional story.

Author:Cheng, Winnie


Risk communication is a shared interest of policy makers and stakeholders. Many agree that communicating risk to the public is a complicated undertaking and it poses formidable challenges (Johnson & Fisher, 2006; Lipkus & Hollands, 1999). One of the key communication challenges with radon has to do with public apathy (Sandman, 1986). Contrary to technological hazards such as radioactive contamination or toxic wastes, public perception of radon risk represents an optimistic bias (Weinstein, Klotz, & Sandman, 1988). Another communication challenge stems from the fact that radon occurs naturally, thus no "villain" exists to blame and not many obvious radon "victims" are observed (Fisher & Johnson, 1990). In fact, any harmful health effects of radon often do not show up for a long time.

Radon exposure occurs primarily in a person's home, and thus it is an individual's responsibility to test and mitigate for radon. The nature of this situation rules out conventional regulatory approaches that are used in managing pollution sources (Desvousges, Smith, & Rink, 1989). For this reason, regulatory bodies turn to information programs as a way of communicating risk and encouraging voluntary reductions in risk (Johnson & Fisher, 2006). The perception of radon as a "low-risk problem" is attributable to multiple factors that include the absence of federal regulations, competing environmental concerns presented daily in the media, concerns about home values, and public apathy (Johnson, Fisher, Smith, & Desvousges, 2010).

The Environmental Health Program (EHP) of Health Canada in the British Columbia region has been using a diverse approach in their communication of radon risks, which includes responses to public inquiries, trade shows and conference events, social media, workshops, webinars, public forums, radon poster contests for students, and radon distribution maps creation. Radon risk communication efforts through EHP has benefited from partnerships with different jurisdictions and nongovernmental organizations, which aid in adding strength and credibility to the message. This special report presents the lessons learned from radon testing in federal buildings as well as education and awareness activities for the public in the British Columbia region. In particular, it presents knowledge of the public's misconceptions of radon risk and the strategies that are used to "demystify" them. The myths identified for discussion here were the result of the experiences in education and awareness activities, as well as through literature reviews and case studies.

Strategies to Demystifying the Radon Myth

Myth 1: Radon should remain low on the scale of concern for the public. Radon does not seem to cause any visible health effects. There are no obvious "dead bodies," and lung cancer caused by radon exposure, if it occurs, will not be for many years (Fisher & Johnson, 1990; Radon Prevention and Mediation [RADPAR], 2011; World Health Organization [WHO], 2009). Such human perceptions present considerable challenges to the design of an effective risk communication strategy in overcoming public apathy towards radon.

Health Canada estimates that indoor radon exposure causes the deaths of approximately 3,200 Canadians every year--16% of all lung cancer deaths (Health Canada, 2012a). Thus, it makes radon the second cause of lung cancer after smoking (Health Canada, 2012b). Radon is the largest source of natural radiation exposure (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission [CNSC], 2013), as it represents over 30% of the naturally occurring radiation people are exposed to in a lifetime (CNSC, 2011). In addition, one in three people who have had long-term exposure to elevated radon levels and tobacco smoke will be diagnosed with lung cancer (Health Canada, 2012c). Overall, the number of radon-related deaths in Canada from lung cancer is about 25% higher than the number of traffic-related deaths and greatly exceeds the number of deaths due to accidental poisoning and homicides (Statistics Canada, 2009). According to the Canadian Cancer Statistics 2013 report released by the Canadian Cancer Society, the Public Health Agency, and Statistics Canada, British Columbia has 139 cancer deaths per 100,000 population (9,700 deaths in the total population), with the leading cause of cancer death being lung cancer. Thus, with respect to Myth 1, the use of statistical or quantitative information in risk communications is needed to raise public concern over radon exposure and its health risks.

Myth 2: The perception is that indoor radon exposures are natural, therefore, people should have no or little control (RADPAR, 2011). This statement is not correct. While sources of radon are ultimately geological and natural, high indoor radon exposures may not be. Indoor radon levels can be considered artificial (or "technologically enhanced") if they are the consequence of human activities such as building design, construction, and usage (RADPAR, 2011). In addition, indoor radon concentrations can be easily measured; if they are found to be high they can be reduced. Therefore people do have control if they choose to take preventative action.

Elevated levels of radon can be...

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