An Invisible Killer

Radon silently slipped in and changed their lives forever

By Francie Healy

When Emily Jossinet’s father, Joel, a healthy, long distance runner, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, and then a few years later with a B-Cell Lymphoma, no one in the family could understand it. Joel Jossinet had been exceptionally healthy all his life.

Then, about three years later, her mom, Nancy, started missing some words in everyday conversation and began having trips and falls.

Emily and her mum, Nancy

“Mom,” said Emily, “something’s up. Let’s make a doctor’s appointment.” Nancy insisted it wasn’t necessary and they agreed to let it go until after Christmas.

Not too long afterwards, Emily received a phone call from one of Nancy’s good friends, a nurse. “I think your mom’s had a stroke,” she said.

Emily and her husband, Gary Singh, immediately drove straight to Nancy’s. When they got there, they could see something was wrong with her and they took her to the hospital.

Nancy received CT scans and blood tests at two different community hospitals that day before she was finally admitted.

Further neurological tests in two Ottawa hospitals showed Nancy’s entire body was riddled with lesions on almost all her organs. If that weren’t enough, she had a glioblastoma brain tumour.

Somewhere in that long, dark, frightening time with doctors and hospitals, a doctor wondered aloud: “Has the house ever been tested for radon?”

It was not something Gary and Emily, or Emily’s dad, Joel, had considered, despite the fact that Gary and Emily run their own professional renovation company (Singhko Inc.) in Ottawa, or that Joel has a scientific background in Chemistry at Queen’s University, Kingston.

Emily and Gary, along with Emily’s brother, decided to find out. Emily’s brother ordered a test. There were several options, but they decided on a test that monitors your house constantly and goes to an app on your phone.

“When we plugged it in,” says Emily, “It screamed RED right away.” Her parents’ radon level was around 1300 Bq/m3 (becquerels per cubic meter) when it should have been no more than 100 (or 2.7 pCi/L).

We didn’t realize this could be in their house,” Emily adds. “You can’t smell it, or see it, or taste it. It’s a silent killer. It’s the best hidden secret that shouldn’t be.”

Nancy and Joel Jossinet in happier times

It was, understandably, an intense, upsetting time. Emily and Gary had three young children; they were busy running their business; Joel was sick; Nancy was dying; the Jossinet home was screaming “Radon!”; and it was the middle of a pandemic.

But they almost didn’t have time to stop and think. They had to act. They pulled back the carpet in the basement. They found the expansion joints had never been filled and the sump cover was an older style.

“So there was air coming in from everywhere,” explains Emily.

They filled the expansion joints and changed the sump cover.

They were in touch with a radon specialist, Rob Mahoney of Radon Works in Ottawa. Rob walked them through the process and gave them advice as they went. Knowing Emily and Gary were renovators, he told them to cut right back to the foundation. (Nancy and Joel had a finished laundry room, so nothing was visible beyond it.) Rob wanted to know if the foundation, where it meets the wall, was sealed properly. It was. But the detector was still screaming RED.

Emily told Nancy’s doctor that there was definitely radon in the house. The doctor said studies have shown that glioblastoma tumours can be directly related to radon.

Emily and Gary asked Rob Mahoney to install a radon extraction system in the Jossinet home. The system would suck air from under the house much in the way a dryer filter does, so radon gas wouldn’t have a chance to permeate.

“Meanwhile,” notes Emily, “we were dealing with the fact that my mom was going to die. I kept saying, Why don’t people know about this?”

Nancy and Joel with Emily and the children. Nancy was a talented quilter.

Another medical professional agreed there needed to be more public health information about radon, but added: “You know, you have to be really careful about what you say, because it could directly affect the housing market.”

And what good, answered Emily, is the value of your house if you’re dying?

Radon poisoning is accumulative, explains Emily. Her parents had been in their home for 20 years. Her mom had her quilting room in the basement, and her dad’s office was downstairs, too. There was also a spare bedroom. Emily began to think of all the times she and her family ‒ their children ‒ stayed overnight there.

Her mother died in March 2021 in hospice. Because of the pandemic, four people were allowed to see her, and no more. During the first 14 days her visitors had to be fully gowned, masked, shielded. Nancy’s grandchildren had to stay outside in the snow and talk to their grandmother via speaker on Emily’s phone inside.

Within 48 hours of the radon extraction system being installed, the Jossinet home was perfectly safe.

In her grief and worry about her dad (who is medically stable now), Emily began writing posts on Instagram. She wanted to somehow get information out to family and friends to let them know that radon is real, and it’s deadly if it gets into your house. She wanted to tell them her parents were perfectly healthy, active people, and if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.

She had many responses from people who told her they had gotten their homes tested as a result and that Emily’s posts made a huge impact on their future health. The same thing happened when her brother gave a talk on radon at work. A member of his audience came back to him and said, “My radon level was 2000. You probably saved our lives.” Emily heard from a woman who said her parents in the Carp, Ont. area had died within two weeks of each other after a brain glioblastoma related to radon.

On a sunny day in early Spring, Joel was able to visit Nancy outside.

Emily herself decided she would take care of her own physical and mental health after this difficult experience. Writing the posts was healing. She got a dog, started walking: “Did some things,” she says.

Joel moved back into the house, although it made Emily feel uneasy at first, just because of the bad memories the house now held for her (“That’s the house that killed my mom”). But as Joel said, “We loved this house. This is my home. My life is here.”

And his house has now dipped to 6Bqm3. It is safe.

“Somebody’s got to be responsible for telling us about this,” Joel says now. “There needs to be some official body with a louder voice who makes sure there is testing in every home.”

He adds he hopes testing will be mandated in the future.

“But right now it’s just too slow.”

For more information about the dangers of radon, see Ask an expert about radon with expert Rob Mahoney.

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