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Impacts of wildfire smoke and radon exposure on lung cancer risk

Being aware of the air we breathe year-round, both inside and outside, may help prevent lung cancer.
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​Most people commonly associate lung cancer with smoking. However, being aware of the air we breathe year-round may also help prevent lung cancer. While outdoor air pollution like wildfire smoke is easier to see and smell during the summer months in B.C., there may be an even higher risk of developing lung cancer from the air inside your home from radon; a colourless, odourless gas that can be circulating inside, especially during the winter when windows and doors are closed. 

Outdoor air pollution and wildfire smoke

The Canadian Cancer Society indicates that 1,700 new cancer cases across Canada can be attributed to outdoor air pollution in general; however the overall impact of intermittent air pollution (commonly caused by wildfire smoke) is not as well understood. 

“Our understanding of the impact of air pollution on lung cancer primarily comes from studies where people are exposed to poor air quality on a daily basis over many years,” says Dr. Parveen Bhatti, principal investigator in Cancer Epidemiology & Prevention at BC Cancer. “However, with forest fires increasing in size, severity and frequency over time, potential long-term health risks may include increased risks of lung cancer, particularly in communities facing high levels of exposure on a yearly basis.”

Dr. Bhatti recommends reviewing B.C.’s Air Quality Index as outdoor air quality can impact health without any obvious symptoms. To protect yourself from wildfire smoke, the BCCDC has a few recommendations, including:   

  • Using a portable HEPA air cleaner to filter the air in your home
  • Visiting public spaces such as community centres, libraries, and shopping malls which tend to have cleaner, cooler indoor air
  • Taking it easy on smoky days because the harder you breathe, the more smoke you inhale 
  • Drinking lots of water to help reduce inflammation
  • If you are working outdoors, using an N95 respirator that has been properly fitted by occupational health and safety professionals.

For more information on wildfire smoke and its health impacts, including ways to prepare for wildfire smoke season, visit the BCCDC webpage on wildfire smoke

Indoor air quality and radon levels

When it comes to indoor air, it’s important to ensure the air inside your home is free from radon. According to Health Canada, approximately 16 per cent of all lung cancer deaths in Canada are linked to radon exposure. Radon is an invisible, naturally occurring gas that can seep into homes.

“As we breathe this gas in over time, we know it can lead to the development of lung cancer,” says Dr. Bhatti. “Although it can be an issue in any home, in certain parts of the province like the Interior and Northern B.C., radon is more of a concern. There are radon testing kits available to determine if the levels in your home are safe. If they are not, there are modifications that can be made to homes to bring exposures down to safe levels.”

A whopping 96 per cent of Canadians have not tested their homes for radon but taking action can reduce radon levels in homes by more than 80 per cent and can save lives. 

For more information on how to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer, including resources on how to test for radon, check out: Insights into lung cancer in B.C.: How British Columbians can reduce their risk

SOURCE: Impacts of wildfire smoke and radon exposure on lung cancer risk ( )
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