Feb. 26, 2024

Rural communities face greater risks of radon exposure compared to urban areas

UCalgary researchers find elevated radon gas levels in rural homes with close proximity to drilled groundwater wells

Calgary, AB – University of Calgary researchers have found a link between radon exposure in rural homes based on how close they are to drilled groundwater wells. The transdisciplinary team was investigating why homes in rural communities often have a much higher concentration of radon compared with homes in urban areas. The researchers from the faculties of medicine, science and architecture looked at the geophysical makeup of areas, the style of home, as well as unique features on or near the property.

“For years now, in Canada and all across the world, people have documented higher radon levels in homes in more rural communities compared to homes in urban communities. It’s the water wells – not the water, but the wells themselves – that appear to be acting as unintended straws for radon gas deep in the ground. Thankfully, lowering radon levels in a home is fixable.”

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, principal investigator and associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine

Many rural properties and communities rely on well water. The researchers also tested the water for radon and found there is not enough radon in the well water to significantly contribute to the high radon being observed in indoor air. Instead, the problem appears to result from the drill hole space existing around water well pipes.

“We know that methane gas bubbles up around the outside of some oil and gas wells. This caused us to wonder if ‘unintended’ or ‘fugitive’ radon gas migration might also be occurring along water wells.”

Dr. Cathy Ryan, PhD, study co-lead and professor in the Faculty of Science

Radon is an invisible, odourless, tasteless and radioactive gas. Naturally rising from under the ground and diluting to virtually nothing in outdoor air, radon gas is often drawn up and concentrated inside modern buildings to unnaturally high and cancer-causing levels. Prolonged radon gas exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-tobacco users in Canada.

 “In order to design safe and healthy buildings, it’s imperative to understand the environment in which they exist. While soil gas has often been overlooked in North American homes, this work gives us important insights into the geological issues that building designs must be able to safely address.”

Josh Taron, MArch, study co-lead and the associate dean of research and innovation at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at UCalgary

The study, published in Scientific Reports, found, on average, individuals living in rural communities were exposed to 30 per cent higher residential radon levels than people living in urban communities. The higher rural radon effect was consistent for households across Canada. The researchers say these findings underscore the importance of regular radon testing, particularly in rural areas where drilled groundwater wells are prevalent.

The study was supported by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation.

The Evict Radon National Study is a Canada-wide transdisciplinary research project involving university-based scientists whose mission is to 'Evict Radon' from homes. By integrating technology, skills and knowledge, the Evict Radon team aims to understand and prevent radon exposure while ensuring inclusivity in lung cancer screening programs. For more information, visit https://evictradon.org.


Dr. Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, is an associate professor in the departments of Oncology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and is a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM. He is the program lead for the Robson DNA Science Centre at the Charbonneau Institute and is also the Scientific Director of the Evict Radon National Study.

Josh Taron, MArch, is an associate professor (architecture) and associate dean (Research + Innovation) at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at UCalgary. He is on the Board of Directors for the Evict Radon National Study

Dr. Cathy Ryan, PhD, Peng, Pgeol, is a professor in the Faculty of Science, Department of Earth Energy, and Environment. She is a water scientist with the Evict Radon National Study.

Media inquiries

Kelly Johnston
Sr. Communications Specialist
Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary

About the University of Calgary
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About the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute
The Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute is a community of researchers and educators dedicated to a cancer-free future. Charbonneau is meeting the cancer challenge through discovery and innovation in basic and applied research. The Institute brings together scientists and physicians to integrate research and care across disciplines – from understanding and preventing cancer, to transforming its detection and treatment, to improving life with and after cancer. Our members include researchers at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine and Teaching Hospitals. To learn more about Charbonneau, visit charbonneau.ucalgary.ca/