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Water conservation

In 2005, Canadian households used 3,771.1 million cubic metres of water, which accounted for 9% of all the water used in Canada. 1 , 2  This equates to approximately 320 litres per person every day of the year. 3  Water can be conserved using a variety of means, including using timers on sprinklers and replacing old fixtures with more water-efficient ones. The use of cisterns to collect rainwater is another way households can reduce the amount of water they draw from their water supplies.

Indoor water conservation

Low-flow shower heads

The use of low-flow shower heads is a relatively inexpensive way for a household to reduce the amount of water used when someone takes a shower. Their uptake by Canadian households has increased over the last two decades, from 28% in 1991 to 63% in 2009 (Table 1). They were most likely to be found in households in New Brunswick (67%) and least likely to be found in households in Manitoba (49%).

Overall, households that had non-municipal water supplies, such as a well, were more likely to have had a low-flow shower head than those that had municipally-supplied water (65% and 62%, respectively). While most provinces had similar rates of adoption for households with municipal water supplies compared to those with non-municipal water supplies, households with non-municipal water supplies in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Manitoba were much more likely to have had a low-flow shower head than those that had municipal water supplies (79%, 75% and 61%, respectively).

Low-volume toilets

Toilets can be modified to use less water per flush by placing a bottle in the tank or installing a dam, both of which effectively reduce the volume of the tank, or they can be designed specifically to use less water. Regardless of how this reduction was achieved, 42% of households reported having a low-volume toilet in 2009 (Table 1), compared to 9% of households in 1991. Households in Ontario (48%) and Alberta (46%) were most likely to have had one, while those in Newfoundland and Labrador (30%) and Prince Edward Island (31%) were the least likely to have reported one.

Households that had non-municipal water supplies were more likely to have had a low-volume toilet compared to those that had municipally-supplied water (48% and 42%, respectively). While most provinces have slightly higher rates of uptake for households that had non-municipally-supplied water compared to those that had a municipal water supply, households in Quebec (45% compared to 33%) and British Columbia (54% compared to 39%) were much more likely to have had a low-volume toilet if they had a non-municipal water supply.

Outdoor water conservation

Sprinkler timers

By controlling the amount of water that is applied to lawns and gardens, households can reduce their water consumption. Sprinkler timers can enable households to achieve this goal.

Seventy percent of Canadian households 4  had a lawn in 2009 (Table 2). Of these households, 43% reported that they had watered their lawn in 2009. Almost three-quarters (72%) used a sprinkler or sprinkler system, 27% of which had a timer. Sprinkler timers were most common in Quebec and British Columbia (36% and 35%, respectively).

In 2009, 61% of households reported having gardens and areas with trees, shrubs, flowers or vegetables outside the home. 5  Almost three-quarters (73%) of these households indicated that they watered it during 2009. Sprinklers and sprinkler systems were used by 23% of those households that watered their garden, of which 36% were connected to a timer. As with lawn sprinkler timers, garden sprinkler timers were most commonly reported by households in British Columbia (48% of households that used a garden sprinkler) and Quebec (43%).

Rain barrels and cisterns

Cisterns and rain barrels can be used to collect the run-off of rain and snow from roofs. The collected water can then be used to water lawns and gardens and other uses that do not require the water to be potable. In 2009, 18% of households that were not in apartments 6  reported they had a rain barrel or cistern (Table 2). They were most commonly used in Alberta (33%), Saskatchewan (28%) and Manitoba (26%). Non-apartment households in Quebec, on the other hand, were the least likely to have used a cistern or rain barrel, with just 11% of these households reporting one.

Water supply

Household water source

The majority of Canadian households (87%) were connected to a municipal water supply (Table 3), which is a slight increase from 2007 (86%). Households in Saskatchewan and Alberta were most likely to have had their water provided by their municipality (94% and 91%, respectively). Prince Edward Island saw the greatest increase in the proportion of households that had municipally-supplied water with it increasing to 61% in 2009 from 49% in 2007. 7  Water used in New Brunswick households was slightly more likely to have come from a non-municipal source (51%), such as a well, than from a municipal water system (48%).

Drinking water decisions

Regardless of whether it came from a municipal or non-municipal source, the proportion of Canadian households that drank primarily tap water in 2009 was 66% (Table 4), up from 59% in 2007. At the same time, the proportion of households that drank primarily bottled water dropped to 24% from 30% in 2007. Nine percent of households reported that they drank both tap and bottled water equally.

Households in Prince Edward Island and British Columbia were most likely to have drunk primarily tap water (76% and 73%, respectively), while those in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba were the least likely (61%, 62% and 62%, respectively).

Tap water was the primary type of drinking water reported by 66% of households that had municipally-supplied water and 64% of households that had a non-municipal water supply. Households that had a non-municipal water supply were slightly more likely to have drunk primarily bottled water than those that had a municipal supply (28% compared to 24%). Compared to 2007 this represents a shift in preference from bottled water to tap water, regardless of water source.

Households in British Columbia that had municipally-supplied water were the most likely to have drunk primarily tap water (73%), while those in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick were the least likely (60%). Bottled water was most frequently reported as the primary type of drinking water by households with a municipal water supply (31%) in New Brunswick.

Of the households that had non-municipal water supplies, those in Prince Edward Island were most likely to have drunk primarily tap water (85%), while those in Saskatchewan were the least likely (about 49%).

Water testing

Health Canada recommends that households obtaining their water from private wells have their well water tested by a laboratory two to three times a year. 8  In 2009, 33% of households on a non-municipal water supply reported that they had had their water tested by a laboratory (Table 5). Of these households, about 14% indicated that a problem was found.

Households with municipal water supplies were less likely to have had their water tested, with only 5% reporting this. Of those households that had had their water tested, about 14% reported that a problem was found.

Care must be exercised when interpreting the problem rates for municipal and non-municipal supplies because respondents were not asked about the nature of the problems found. Testing is done for a variety of contaminants such as the presence of E. coli and other pathogens, and metals such as lead, arsenic or mercury. Other characteristics of water quality that may be tested for include hardness, colour and clarity. Though aesthetic problems such as hardness, colour and clarity may exist, whether they constitute a 'problem' is a matter of opinion for the respondent.

Water treatment

A household may treat its water even if there are no issues with the water such as pathogens, metals or minerals. Aesthetic characteristics of the water (appearance, taste, and odour) may be such that the water is unappealing to drink. Water treatment techniques such as filtration and boiling are ways that the quality of one's drinking water may be improved.

Between 2007 and 2009, there was a slight decrease in the proportion of households served by municipal water that treated their drinking water. The proportion of households with municipally-supplied water that treated it prior to consumption dropped three percentage points from 2007 to 51% (Table 6), while the proportion of households with non-municipal water supplies that treated their water remained the same at 49%.

Methods of water treatment

Households can treat their water in different ways. The type of filter or purifier used usually depends on the type of water source.

A filter or purifier can be installed on the main pipe to filter all the water used in the dwelling. Typically, these tend to be more robust systems and are more common where a household has a non-municipal water supply. Inline filtration systems often consist of more than one type of filter or purifier connected in series to address a variety of problems that may exist. Some inline filters perform simple mechanical filtration to remove particulate matter like grains of sand, while others use ceramic filters or membrane filters that have very fine pores to filter the water. Some filtration and purification systems are able to remove minerals, metals and other contaminants from the water. Another type of purification system uses ultraviolet light to neutralize any pathogens that may be present.

On-tap filters and filtration systems integrated in appliances such as refrigerators, water coolers and coffee makers, usually use a carbon or activated charcoal filter to remove impurities that may be in the water. While often effective in improving the aesthetic qualities of the water (appearance, taste and odour), these filters tend not to be effective in removing E. coli, if present, but may be able to remove other pathogens such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia9 

Jug filters are refillable pitchers that have an integrated filter cartridge. Water is added to a reservoir in the top of the pitcher and allowed to pass through the filter, usually an activated charcoal cartridge, before collecting in the main part of the jug.

Boiling water before using it is another common way to treat water. It is a very effective way to eliminate pathogens such as E. coli, Cryptosporidium and Giardia, but does not address other problems such as hardness and the presence of harmful metals such as lead and mercury.

Households with a municipal water supply

Municipally-supplied water is required to meet provincial and territorial government quality requirements in terms of both health factors and aesthetic characteristics (appearance, taste and odour) and the vast majority consistently meet or exceed these guidelines. 10  Despite this, just over half (51%) of Canadian households that had municipally-supplied water treated their water prior to using it (Table 6).

Boil water advisories and orders

Boil water advisories and orders are issued by public health units or other responsible authorities when there is cause for concern about the quality of drinking water from a water supply. 11  Usually, they are issued for municipal water supply systems, but they are occasionally issued when surface or ground water sources that are known to be used for private water supplies are contaminated or at risk.

Contamination by pathogens such as E. coli and other bacteria is one reason they are issued, but they are also issued as a precaution when planned or unplanned work is conducted on a municipal water supply system. Broken water mains can result in advisories and orders being issued for dwellings that receive their water from the affected pipe.

Weather and other natural factors can also lead to boil water advisories and orders; such as the heavy rains and fast-moving runoff that occurred in Riverside-Albert, New Brunswick in early-September 2009 causing turbidity problems in the municipality's water reservoir, 12  and the wildfires near the town of Lillooet, British Columbia in August 2009 that resulted in a boil water advisory while officials assessed the safety of the town's water supply. 13 

Jug filters were the most common form of filtration device reported by households that had municipally-supplied water, with 35% reporting using one. On-tap filters and purifiers, the next most common method of water treatment, were used by 17% of households that had a municipal water supply. Five percent of households used a filter or purifier on the main supply pipe in their dwelling.

Eleven percent of households that had municipally-supplied water and drank primarily tap water reported they boiled it in order to make it safe to drink. Of these households, 30% reported that they had treated their water due to a boil water advisory, while 70% did not report this as a reason they treated their water (Chart 1).

Provincially, households in Newfoundland and Labrador that had municipally-supplied water were the most likely to have treated it prior to consumption (64%), while those in Quebec were the least likely to have done so (36%) (Table 7). Households in Alberta were most likely to have had an on-tap filter (25%), while those in Newfoundland and Labrador were most likely to have used a jug filter (50%) (Table 6). Having boiled water in order to make it safe to drink was most frequently reported by households in British Columbia (19%).

Over half of those that treated their water (55%) reported they did so to improve its appearance, taste or odour (Table 7). Forty-eight percent treated it to remove water treatment chemicals such as chlorine; 15% treated their water to soften it, while 30% did so to remove metals or minerals other than for hardness. More than one-third (36%) reported that they treated their municipally-supplied water to remove possible bacterial contamination.

Households with a non-municipal water supply

The quality of water from non-municipal sources such as wells and surface sources such as springs, lakes, rivers and dugouts, is not usually monitored to the same extent as municipal water supplies. Regardless of whether they tested their wells on a regular basis, almost half (49%) of the households that obtained their water from non-municipal water sources treated it prior to consumption (Table 8).

Households in Ontario and Manitoba that had non-municipal water supplies were most likely to have treated their water (55% and 54%, respectively), while those in Prince Edward Island were the least likely to have done so (37%).

Twenty-nine percent of households with a non-municipal water supply used a filter or purifier on their main supply pipe. Jug filters and on-tap filters were the next two most common forms of water treatment, with 15% and 14% of households, respectively, using these devices. Five percent of households that obtained their water from a non-municipal water source boiled it in order to make it safe to drink (Table 8).

Households in Ontario were most likely to have used a filter or purifier on the main supply pipe (35%), while those in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were least likely to have used one, with 25% in each reporting this method of treatment.

Of those households that drew their water from a non-municipal source, 44% treated their water to improve its appearance, taste or odour (Table 9). Thirty-one percent treated the water for hardness, while 41% treated it to remove metals or minerals other than those that cause hardness. One-third treated their water prior to consumption to remove possible bacterial contamination.

Five percent of households that had a non-municipal water supply and drank primarily tap water reported they boiled it in order to make it safe to drink. Of these households, 74% did not report that they had treated their water due to a boil water advisory (Chart 1).

Seven out of ten households in Alberta that had a non-municipal water supply reported they treated their water to improve its appearance, taste or odour, while households in Quebec were most likely to have treated their water to reduce its hardness (42%) (Table 9). Concerns about possible bacterial contamination were one reason that 43% of households with non-municipal water supplies in British Columbia treated their water. Forty-five percent of Nova Scotia households with private water supplies treated their water to remove metals or minerals other than for hardness.

Waste water

In 2009, the majority of Canadian households (82%) lived in dwellings connected to a municipal sewer system, while 13% had a private septic system (Table 10). Whether a household reported having a sewer connection or a septic system usually depended on whether they had municipally-supplied water or a private water source such as a well. Households in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia were most likely to have had a private septic system, with 42%, 36% and 34%, respectively, while fewer than 10% of households in Saskatchewan and Alberta reported having had private septic systems.

Amongst those households that had municipally-supplied water, 92% were also connected to a municipal sewer system, while only 3% had a private septic system. Conversely, 87% of households that had a non-municipal water supply also had a private septic system and about 2% were connected to a communal septic system. Eight percent of households that had a non-municipal water supply were connected to a municipal sewer system.

Energy use

Canadians spend a lot of money on energy. In 2009, approximately 15% of an average household's annual expenditures on shelter were spent on energy used in the home, excluding fuel for motor vehicles. 14  Environmental concerns about the need to reduce energy consumption and rising energy costs may provide incentives for households to adopt energy conservation measures.

Heating and cooling

Controlling the temperature

More than nine out of ten (91%) Canadian households reported having a thermostat in their dwelling (Table 11). Almost half (49%) of these households had programmable thermostats, which is an increase of seven percentage points from 2007 (42%).

The overall proportion of programmable thermostats that had been programmed was unchanged from 2007 at 84%. Households in New Brunswick that had programmable thermostats were the least likely to have programmed them, with 72% indicating they had done so.

Winter temperatures

Slightly more than six out of ten households (61%) that had a thermostat lowered the temperature during the winter while they slept (Table 11), which is a slight increase from 2007 (55%). Households in Prince Edward Island were once again most likely to turn the temperature down (66%), while those in New Brunswick and Manitoba were the least likely to do so (58%).

Households that had programmable thermostats that had been programmed were much more likely to have lowered the temperature when they were asleep compared to households that had a non-programmable thermostat or a programmable thermostat that had not been programmed (74% compared to 53%, respectively). Among the households that had programmed their programmable thermostats, those in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were most likely to have programmed them to lower the temperature when the household was asleep (82% and 81%, respectively), while those in Nova Scotia were the least likely (57%) to have done so. However, households in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island that had non-programmable thermostats and programmable thermostats that had not been programmed were most likely to have manually lowered the temperature when asleep (64% and 63%, respectively), while those in Ontario were least likely (46%) to have done so.

Energy conservation

Energy-saving light bulbs

Conventional incandescent light bulbs are among the least energy-efficient light bulbs in use today. 15  However, there are a variety of alternative types of lights that can be used that require less energy to produce the same amount of light compared to an incandescent bulb. Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), fluorescent tube lights, halogen lights and light-emitting diode (LED) lights are common types of energy-efficient lights. Eighty-eight percent of Canadian households reported that they had at least one of these lights in their home (Table 12).

Three-quarters of households reported having at least one compact fluorescent light, with Nova Scotia leading the way with 84% of households having one. Households in Quebec and Manitoba were the least likely to have had a CFL (69%).

Fluorescent tube lights were reported by 47% of Canadian households in 2009. More than half of the households in Manitoba (55%) reported having a fluorescent tube light, while only 26% of households in Newfoundland and Labrador indicated they had one in their home.

Halogen lights are a type of incandescent light that have longer lifespans than conventional incandescent lights because they contain a halogen gas that minimizes filament wear. 16  Thirty-five percent of Canadian households reported having one of these lights, which is unchanged from 2007. Almost half of the households in Quebec (49%) indicated they had a halogen light, which is an increase of 7 percentage points from 2007.

Light-emitting diodes (LED) are extremely energy-efficient devices that come in a variety of forms, some of which are socket compatible with conventional lights. 17  Though the technology has been around for several years, it is only in the last couple of years that they have become more available on the retail market. 18  In 2009, 7% of Canadian households had a LED light. Households in British Columbia led the way in their uptake where 12% of households reported having one. Households in Quebec and Ontario were the least likely to have one, with 5% and 7% reporting one, respectively.

Energy-saving behaviours

In addition to using energy-saving light bulbs, lowering the temperature and purchasing energy-efficient major appliances, households can also reduce the amount of energy they consume through a variety of other practices.

Using dimmers on household lights

Dimmers can reduce the amount of energy consumed by lights. 19  In 2009, half of Canadian households reported having a dimmer (Table 13). Households in Quebec (53%), British Columbia (53%) and Ontario (51%) were most likely to have had one, while those in New Brunswick were least likely to have had one (36%).

Unplugging electronics when away from the home for an extended period of time

Modern electronic devices, such as cell phone chargers, televisions and computers, can consume a small amount of electricity even when they are in standby mode or turned off. These "phantom loads" can quickly add up to 100 watts or more of continuous power consumption. 20  Unplugging these devices when away for extended periods of time can result in energy savings.

In 2009, 57% of Canadian households reported that they unplugged electronics when away for extended periods of time (Table 13). Households in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia were the most likely to have done so (72%), while those in Quebec were the least likely to have done this (41%).

Reducing heating and cooling in certain areas of the dwelling

Heating or cooling infrequently used parts of a dwelling can result in unnecessary energy consumption. Reducing the heating or cooling in such areas by closing vents or turning off electric baseboard heaters, for example, is one step households can take to help reduce their energy consumption.

Six out of ten households reported that they reduced the heating or cooling in certain areas of their dwellings (Table 13). Households in Quebec were most likely to have done this (71%), while those in Manitoba were the least likely to have done so (46%).

Using a clothesline or drying rack

Clotheslines and drying racks offer an alternative to using a clothes dryer when doing laundry. Some jurisdictions have by-laws prohibiting the use of outdoor clotheslines, but during the last few years some of these by-laws have been repealed. 21 

Almost two-thirds of Canadian households (64%) reported that they used a clothesline or drying rack in 2009 (Table 13). Households in eastern Canada were generally more likely to have used one than those in western Canada, with Prince Edward Island leading the way with 80% of households reporting they used one. Households in Manitoba were the least likely to have used a clothesline or drying rack with 46% of households doing so.

Using fans for cooling

One way to manage the temperature in the home is by improving air circulation through the use of fans.

In 2009, 66% of Canadian households used a fan for cooling in the summer (Table 13). Households in Prince Edward Island were the most likely to have used them, with 84% reporting this activity, while households in Manitoba were the least likely to have used them (57%).

Closing blinds and drapes during the hottest part of the day

Closing blinds or drapes during the hottest part of the day can help reduce the amount of cooling necessary to keep the dwelling at a comfortable temperature.

More than 8 out of 10 households (83%) in Canada reported that they closed the blinds or drapes during the hottest part of the day (Table 13). Saskatchewan had the highest proportion of households that did this (93%), while Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest proportion (59%).

Putting plastic film on windows in the winter

Putting plastic film on windows in the winter can help reduce drafts and the loss of heat to the outdoors. It can also be an inexpensive alternative to replacing older less energy-efficient windows.

Slightly more than 1 out of 5 Canadian households (21%) reported they had put plastic film on their windows in the winter (Table13 ). Households in Quebec were most likely to have done so, with 34% of households having reported it, while households in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador were the least likely (10%).

Energy audits

An energy audit evaluates the energy efficiency of a home by looking at characteristics of the building envelope, including the walls, doors and windows. How air-tight the building is, the R-value of the insulation and other factors are assessed. Usually, a home energy audit will include a report that takes into consideration local climate factors, thermostat settings and energy consumption.

In 2009, 12% of Canadian households reported that an energy audit had been conducted on their dwelling, of which 91% reported that it had been conducted in the preceding ten years (Table 14). Saskatchewan led the country (21%), 22  while Alberta trailed with 6% of households reporting that one had been conducted.

Indoor environment

Indoor air quality

Good air quality is achieved when there are very low levels of contaminants present. Contaminants such as dust, mould, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, and radon can affect indoor air quality in the home and can thus have a negative impact on the people living there. 23 

Canadian households were asked to rate the quality of the air in their home during the previous year. The majority of households responded that their air quality was good (34%), very good (37%) or excellent (18%) (Table 15). Seven percent of households said that the air quality in their dwelling was fair, while 1% reported they considered it to be poor. Households in Ontario (88%) and Prince Edward Island (87%) were slightly less likely to report that the air quality in their dwelling was excellent, very good or good, while those in Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba were the most likely to do so (both 94%).

Overall, 5% of respondents thought that someone in their household had experienced a health problem that may have been caused by the quality of the air in the dwelling. Just over half (52%) of those households that suspected a health problem had been caused by the quality of the air in their dwelling reported that the air quality was poor, while 17% reported their dwelling's air quality was fair (Chart 2).

Condensation, mould and mildew

Condensation, mould and mildew tend to go hand in hand. When warm, moist air comes into contact with a surface that is cold, moisture condenses. Water and frost that collect on windows is a visible example of this. 24  Ten to fifty litres of moisture is released in a typical home on a daily basis. In a heating season lasting 200 days, 2,000 to 10,000 litres of moisture can be trapped in the home. 25  Over time, this may result in damage to the house structure, its contents and possibly the health of those living in it. Controlling humidity is the best way to prevent mould and mildew problems. 26 

In 2009, 20% of Canadian households reported seeing condensation on the inside surfaces of their windows, other than moisture from showers or cooking (Table 15). Households in Quebec (24%) and Alberta (23%) had the highest rates of reporting, while those in Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest rate (13%).

Mould growing in the home environment can release mould spores, toxins from the mould and mouldy odours, which can have an impact on the health of those exposed to them. Thirteen percent of households in Canada reported the presence of mould or mildew in their dwelling in 2009. Households in Prince Edward Island (about 17%), New Brunswick (15%) and Ontario (15%) were most likely to have reported the presence of mould or mildew, while those in Alberta (8%) were the least likely to have reported it.

Methods of improving indoor air quality

There are many ways to improve indoor air quality. Some of them are changes in behaviour, such as opening windows, while others are changes in equipment, such as using higher-quality furnace filters or using non-ionizing air cleaning systems.

Furnace filters

There are a variety of different types of furnace filters available to consumers. Basic filters are relatively inexpensive and filter out larger particles. Higher-quality filters usually cost more and tend to filter out smaller particles than the basic filters. Of those households that used a furnace as their main source of heat, 45% reported using higher-quality furnace filters (Table 16). More than half of the households in Manitoba (55%) and Saskatchewan (51%) that had a furnace as their primary heating system reported they used better furnace filters.

Air fresheners

While air fresheners can change how the air smells, they do not actually improve the quality of the air by removing the underlying contaminant. Still, 71% of the households that reported using air fresheners indicated they used them to improve the quality of the air in their dwelling (Table 16). Households in Alberta (78%) and Prince Edward Island (77%) were most likely to report this, while those households in British Columbia were least likely to have used air fresheners to improve their indoor air quality (64%).

Opening windows

Opening the windows can improve the ventilation and introduce fresh air to a dwelling. In 2009, 94% of Canadian households opened windows to improve air circulation in their dwelling (Table 16). During the winter months, 87% of these households opened their windows, with 33% opening them on a daily basis. Households in Prince Edward Island were the most likely to have opened their windows in the winter, with 94% of these households reporting having done so at least once.

However, only 85% of these households opened their windows on a daily basis during the summer. Seventy-seven percent of households in Manitoba that opened their windows did so on a daily basis during the summer, which made them the least likely to do so of all the provinces.

Furnace fans and heat recovery ventilators (HRVs)

Using a mechanical ventilation system, such as an exhaust fan or a heat recovery ventilator (HRV), 27  can be more effective at improving indoor air quality than opening windows. 28  One-quarter of Canadian households reported using a furnace fan or HRV to improve air circulation (Table 16). Households in Manitoba (36%), Saskatchewan (34%) and Alberta (31%) were most likely to have done this, while households in British Columbia (17%) and Nova Scotia (18%) were the least likely.

Generally, heat recovery ventilators are more likely to be found in newer homes, though as older homes have their heating systems replaced, their presence in older homes is increasing. Twenty percent of homes built before 1946 used a furnace fan or HRV to improve air circulation, compared to 30% of homes built between 1996 and 2000 and 50% of homes built in 2006 or later (Chart 3).

Radon

Assessing knowledge of radon

Radon is a radioactive gas found naturally in the environment everywhere. It is produced by the decay of uranium found in rocks and soil. Because radon is a gas, it can move freely through the soil enabling it to escape to the atmosphere or seep into buildings. Radon is invisible, odourless and tasteless, but can be measured. Radon represents over 50% of a person's exposure to naturally occurring radiation.

In outdoor air the amount of radon gas is diluted and does not pose a health risk. However, radon that enters an enclosed space, such as a home or building, can sometimes accumulate to high levels. The risk from radon exposure is long term and depends on: the level of radon in your home, how long you are exposed and your smoking habits. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of radon in the home increases your risk of developing lung cancer, especially for smokers. It is estimated that about 10% of all lung cancers worldwide are related to radon exposure. 29  In 2006, an estimated 1,900 lung cancer deaths in Canada were due to radon exposure. 30 

The only way to know if you have a radon problem is to test your home. It is simple and inexpensive and test kits are available from many home improvement stores. Health Canada encourages all Canadians to test their homes and recommends the use of a long-term test device for a minimum of 3 months, ideally during the fall/winter timeframe when your windows are closed. 31 

A Health Canada survey conducted in the 2009/2010 fall and winter heating season determined that approximately 7% of Canadian homes have radon levels in excess of the current Canadian guideline of 200 Bq/m3, with Manitoba having the highest share of homes with elevated radon levels (23.5%). 32 

Canadian households were asked a series of questions to assess their awareness of radon. Initially, all respondents were asked whether they had heard of radon. Those that indicated they had were asked to describe radon in their own words in order to determine the extent of their knowledge. During post-collection processing a respondent's knowledge of radon was then assessed as either "correct", meaning they were able to unambiguously describe radon, or "incorrect", meaning their description was factually incorrect. Those respondents who were unable to describe radon at all were assigned to a third category. Regardless of whether their answer was correct, respondents who said they had heard of radon were asked whether they considered radon to be a health hazard.

Awareness

Forty-two percent of Canadian households had heard of radon (Table 17). Households in Manitoba and Nova Scotia were the most likely to have heard of it, with 6 out of 10 reporting they had heard of radon. Those in Quebec (38%) and Newfoundland and Labrador (33%) were least likely to have said they had heard of radon.

When respondents who had heard of radon were asked to describe it in their own words, only three out of ten (30%) provided an answer that confirmed their knowledge. Households in New Brunswick (40%), Saskatchewan (37%) and Quebec (36%) were most likely to have provided a correct description of radon. Almost half (46%) of households gave a description that did not apply to radon, with households in Prince Edward Island (51%), Quebec (51%), Newfoundland and Labrador (49%) and Manitoba (49%) most likely to give an incorrect description. Some households (24%) had only heard of radon and could not describe it, with 30% of households in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario falling into this category.

Of those households that had heard of radon, 68% said that radon is a health hazard, 11% said it is not a health hazard and 22% did not know if it is a health hazard. Households in Nova Scotia (75%), Quebec (73%) and Saskatchewan (71%) were the most likely to have correctly identified it as a health hazard, while those in Alberta (16%) were the most likely to have said it is not a health hazard.

Testing

It is impossible to predict if any one house will have a high level of radon. The only way to know if radon is present in a dwelling is to test for it. 33  Because radon is not typically a risk in apartment buildings, except for apartments at or below grade, testing is normally only conducted in single-detached dwellings, doubles, duplexes and other non-apartment dwellings.

Forty-five percent of households not in apartments indicated that they had heard of radon (Table 18). Three percent of these households reported that they had tested their dwelling for the presence of radon. Most of these households (78%) had conducted the testing within the last ten years.

Household hazardous waste

Household hazardous waste consists of items used in the home that cannot be handled by the normal waste and recycling programs, usually because the items are environmentally-hazardous or could pose a hazard to the collection and processing staff. Many municipalities accept household hazardous waste at special depots and some retailers offer take-back programs for certain items. But in some cases households retain the items because they do not know what to do with them. Items that are treated as hazardous waste are not restricted to more obvious items such as paints, solvents and pesticides. Common household items such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and fluorescent tubes, both of which contain mercury, batteries which may contain acids and heavy metals such as cadmium and lithium, electronics such as cell phones and televisions, and medication are often considered hazardous waste for disposal purposes because of what they contain.

Leftover or expired medication

Leftover and expired medications that are disposed of in a landfill can leach into the ground water and may end up in the drinking water supply. Similarly, if flushed down a toilet or poured down the drain, they can end up in surface water because some drugs are difficult or impossible to be removed by a wastewater treatment plant. 34  As a response to this issue, many pharmacies will take back leftover and expired medications in order to ensure proper disposal. As well, household hazardous waste depots often accept medications for disposal.

In 2009, 39% of Canadian households reported that they had leftover or expired medication to dispose of (Table 19). More than half of these households (57%) returned the medication to the supplier or retailer for disposal, which is up from 31% in 2005. A further 6% took or sent them to a depot or drop-off centre. Twenty-two percent put their leftover or expired medication in the garbage, while 8% poured them down the drain or sewer, flushed them down the toilet or poured them on the ground. Fifteen percent still had the medication when they were asked the question.

Provincially, households in Quebec were the most likely to have returned leftover and expired medication to the supplier or retailer with almost three-quarters (74%) of households having done so, while at 29% those in Newfoundland and Labrador were the least likely. Households in British Columbia were the most likely to have thrown them in the garbage (34%).

Paints and solvents

Paints and solvents require special disposal because of the chemical compounds they contain. These compounds can have a negative impact on the environment if not properly disposed of. 35 

Almost 4 out of 10 (39%) Canadian households reported having had leftover paint or solvents to dispose of in 2009 (Table 19). Most of these households (62%) took or sent their unwanted paints and solvents to a depot or drop-off centre, an increase of 12 percentage points from 2005, while 8% returned them to the supplier or retailer. An additional 4% disposed of their leftover paint or solvents by placing them in the garbage. Thirty-one percent still had the paint or solvent at the time of the interview.

Households in Alberta (70%) and British Columbia (69%) were most likely to have returned leftover paint and solvents to a depot or drop-off centre, while those in Prince Edward Island were most likely to have still had them at the time of the interview (42%).

Engine oil and anti-freeze

Many retailers operate take back programs for engine oil and anti-freeze. They are also accepted by most household hazardous waste depots.

In 2009, 15% of Canadian households indicated that they had unwanted engine oil or anti-freeze to dispose of (Table 19). Just over 6 out of 10 (61%) of these households took or sent them to a depot or drop-off centre, while 19% returned them to the supplier or retailer. Eighteen percent of these households reported they still had them when the interview was conducted.

Automotive batteries

Automotive batteries contain toxic heavy metals and corrosive acids that mean they should not be disposed of in landfills. 36 

Twelve percent of Canadian households had dead or unwanted automotive batteries to dispose of in 2009 (Table 19). Slightly less than half (46%) of these households took or sent them to a depot or drop-off centre. Three out of ten (31%) returned them to the supplier or retailer, while 20% still had them at the time of the interview.

General purpose batteries

General purpose batteries, such as AA batteries, watch batteries and other non-automotive batteries, may contain a variety of heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and lithium, in addition to acids. These batteries should not be disposed of in the garbage, but instead should be taken to a special depot or drop-off centre for proper disposal. 37 

In 2009, 58% of Canadian households reported they had dead or unwanted batteries (other than automotive batteries) to dispose of (Table 19). Forty-two percent of these households disposed of them with their regular garbage. Thirty-five percent of households that had batteries to dispose of took or sent them to a depot or drop-off centre, while 7% returned them to the supplier or retailer. Eighteen percent of households still had them to dispose of when the interview was conducted.

Provincially, households in Prince Edward Island were most likely to have taken dead or unwanted batteries to a depot or drop-off centre (44%) and also most likely to have returned them to the supplier or retailer (about 22%). Households in Newfoundland and Labrador (74%) and Saskatchewan (69%) were the most likely to have put them in the garbage.

Electronic devices

Consumer electronics such as cell phones, televisions and computers are becoming increasingly popular. With more than 4 out of 5 households (81.7%) reporting that they owned a computer in 2009 and 77.2% of households having a cellphone in 2009, 38  disposal of these types of items when they reach the end of their useful lives is a significant issue for both the owners and the landfill operators. 39  As some of the components contain heavy metals and other materials that should not be disposed of in landfills, these items are often treated as household hazardous waste. But in the case a consumer electronic item is replaced while it's still working, people will sometimes donate the item to a charity or give it away, rather than put it in the garbage or send it to a recycler.

Thirty-six percent of Canadian households had unwanted electronic devices to dispose of in 2009 (Table 19). The most common method of disposal was taking or sending them to a depot or drop-off centre, with 45% of households that had them having done this, up 26 percentage points from 2005. Donating them or giving them away was reported by 22% of these households. Eleven percent of these households put them in the garbage compared to 16% that did so in 2005. More than a quarter (28%) of households that had unwanted electronic devices to dispose of still had them at the time of the interview.

Households in Saskatchewan were most likely to have taken unwanted electronic devices to a depot or drop-off centre (69%), while those in New Brunswick (28%) and Quebec (29%) were the least likely to have done so. Households in Atlantic Canada were more likely to still have had the devices at the time of the interview compared to the other provinces.

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs)

The use of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) has increased steadily over the last two decades. 40  Unlike conventional incandescent lights that can be thrown in the garbage when they have burnt out, CFLs contain mercury, which can have significant impacts on both human health and the environment if not properly disposed of. Consequently, these lights are generally not accepted in the regular garbage stream and need to be disposed of using a hazardous waste program. Take back programs exist in some provinces 41 , 42  to help consumers dispose of CFLs in a proper manner.

In 2009, 22% of Canadian households reported that they had dead or unwanted compact fluorescent lights to dispose of (Table 19). Over half of these households (56%) reported they put their dead or unwanted CFLs in the garbage, while 24% reported they took or sent them to a depot or drop-off centre. Households in Ontario (30%), British Columbia (29%) and Alberta (29%) were most likely to have used a depot or drop-off centre, while those in Newfoundland and Labrador (74%), New Brunswick (73%) and Saskatchewan (72%) were the most likely to have thrown them in the garbage. Thirteen percent of the households that had dead or unwanted CFLs still had them when the interview was conducted. Households in Ontario (50%) and British Columbia (51%) were least likely to have put them in the garbage.

Purchasing decisions

The purchasing decisions consumers make can have direct and indirect impacts on the environment. Direct impacts are those that are caused by having or using an item, such as the greenhouse gas emissions from driving a car. Indirect impacts can include, for example, the greenhouse gas emissions released by a coal-fired power plant that provides the electricity used by a household's clothes dryer. In some cases, these impacts can be eliminated by not purchasing or using an item, but in many cases it is not practical to eliminate the impact. Often there are actions that can be taken to reduce the magnitude of the impact such as using appliances that are more energy-efficient or purchasing electricity from "green" energy providers.

Major appliances

Major appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, can consume hundreds of kilowatt hours of electricity every year. 43  Some models are much more energy-efficient than others, 44  but sometimes at a higher price. Efficiency is just one factor that may be considered. Others include the reliability, price and features a given model has.

In 2009, 54% of Canadian households reported that they had purchased a major appliance within the last five years (Table 20). Energy or water consumption was reported by 64% of these households as the most important factor considered at the time of purchase. Price was the second most reported consideration (55%), while slightly more than one-third (37%) of households reported reliability as one of the most important factors they considered, and just over a quarter (26%) cited the features the appliance offered.

Green cleaning products

Canadians are exposed to many chemicals every day, from the air we breathe to cleaning products used in the home. While many have no impact on human health or the environment, some do. Choosing environmentally-friendly or "green" cleaning products is one way the number of chemicals in the home can be reduced. 45 

Eight out of ten Canadian households reported they had purchased environmentally-friendly or "green" cleaning products in 2009 (Table 20). Ten percent reported they always did this, 19% reported they often did this and 34% reported they sometimes purchased environmentally-friendly cleaning products. Seventeen percent rarely purchased them and another 17% said they never purchased green cleaning products.

Reusable bags

Reusable and recycled bags and containers continue to be a popular choice for shoppers carrying their groceries. Many retailers are now charging customers for disposable plastic bags to discourage their use. In 2009, 49% of Canadian households reported that they always used recycled or reusable bags when shopping for groceries (Table 20), which represents a 19 percentage point increase from 2007.

Households in Quebec and Ontario (60% and 55%, respectively) led the provinces in the proportion of households reporting that they always used reusable or recycled bags or containers to carry their groceries. Eleven percent of households in Alberta, on the other hand, reported that they never used these types of bags and containers.

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