Collaborator Profile: Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

Photo by Phil Crozier

Dr. Aaron Goodarzi is an internationally renowned expert on Radon exposure. He is an associate professor at the University of Calgary, the Canada Research Chair for Radiation Exposure Disease and the scientific director at Evict Radon, among other things.

Radon is an invisible and odourless radioactive gas that is emitted from the soil, where it enters homes and businesses. It is the second-leading cause of cancer in Canada, estimated to be responsible for more than 3,000 deaths each year. Yet few Canadians are aware of the risks.

Goodarzi and his team spent years gathering data and creating Canada’s largest set of residential radon test results. In early 2021, he shared this data with IJB and Toronto Star reporters and we collaborated to bring it to the public’s attention. Invisible Threat used never-before published national data revealing striking –– and growing –– levels of deadly radon gas inside millions of Canadian homes.

The story, based on six years’ worth of radon tests from 30,000 homes across Canada, exposed how radon levels across Canada are rising as lax building codes allow dangerously high levels to be trapped inside newly built homes.

One in five homes –– 5,600 of the 30,000 tested across Canada –– showed radon levels exceeding Health Canada’s guideline of 200 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m³). More than half of the Canadian homes tested exceed the World Health Organization’s more strict guideline of 100 Bq/m³.

Following publication, Canadians from across the country began testing their houses for radon in unprecedented numbers. There was a 5,400-per-cent increase in Canadians signing up to be part of Evict Radon’s national radon study after we published. In the months following our articles, the federal government sent out more than three million fliers containing information about the dangers of radon and how to test for it.

Here are some of Goodarzi’s reflections on the project and his experience working with the IJB:

The project we worked on together was based on your research and found potentially deadly levels of radon gas in virtually every area of Canada, what motivates your work?

My team and I are motivated by the fact that, just since 2001, more than 100,000 Canadians have been diagnosed with lung cancer despite never smoking tobacco. Their lung cancers are environmentally triggered, and are preventable by understanding cancer-causing exposures arising from the world we live in, and working towards solutions to reduce those exposures as much as possible. 

Radon gas is thought to be the largest contributor to this never-smoker lung cancer crisis, and our worsening exposure to radon is driven by the way we are building houses. 

Most Canadians would acknowledge we have a high pressure housing market in this nation that, to alleviate and make more equitable, requires building many more properties as fast as we can. Official stats say that, by 2050, we need to build 70 per cent more homes than exist today. Our motivation is to ensure that those properties are not built with the levels of radon gas that they are today, which are now amongst the highest in the world. 

The prospect of doing whatever we can to save 100,000 young Canadians and their kids from a lung cancer diagnosis in the coming decades is a strong motivator.

What was it like for you and your team to collaborate with journalists?

Extremely positive. Our team has been increasingly used to working alongside the Canadian media in general, although this interaction was our first experience with an investigative team working through print media. We learned quite a bit about what was, and wasn’t, suited for today’s ever-more challenging world of journalism.

What kind of impact did it have for your work?

This work had the following impacts: 

  1. Further increased the visibility of our work across Canada; 
  2. Enhanced the credibility of our work amongst many circles, particularly in Eastern Canada, for whom prominent coverage on the front page of the Toronto Star is a well-recognized honour; 
  3. Prompted us to generate even more accessible infographics that help communicate our work; and 
  4. Sparked several new opportunities for collaboration that have the potential to make a great deal of positive change in Canada.

Is there any advice you would pass on to other researchers or academics who may be interested in participating in this collaborative model?

The main thing is to be flexible and creative in how to communicate your work, and listen to those with extensive media experience. Also leave yourself plenty of time to craft thoughtful and succinct summaries of the key aspects of the topic you are working on. Brevity and clarity takes time, but is always preferable to long-winded science jargon.

You can read the full story on the Toronto Star’s website or listen to IJB Senior Reporter Declan Keogh discuss the findings on The Big Story podcast.