Research figures underline public complacency about radon

Date released: Feb 21 2005

At least 250,000 people still exposed to deadly gas. Radon causes up to 200 lung cancer fatalities annually. RPII begins Radon Awareness Campaign in selected High Radon Areas.

Though more than three quarters of the Irish population is aware of the deadly radon gas and its dangers, the public is far too slow to take action to address the issue, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) said today. So far, less than four per cent of all affected homes in the country have been identified.

Recent research by TNS mrbi on behalf of the RPII has found that 76% of all Irish people are aware of radon gas. Of these, around half (47%) say they are concerned about the problem. The build up of radon in unremediated homes is responsible for between 150-200 lung cancer deaths every year. Yet since the late 1980s only a tiny percentage of homeowners have come forward to have the relatively straightforward measuring test carried out.

It is estimated that 91,000 homes throughout the country have radon concentrations above the Reference Level required for safety. Although 25,600 homes have been tested by the RPII, and a small number in recent years by private companies, fewer than 3,300 of the problematic homes have yet been identified. At a conservative calculation, around 250,000 people are currently exposed to levels above the accepted safety thresholds.

“There is clearly a large gulf between concern about radon and taking action on it, and this is something that must be tackled as a national issue. Testing for radon in the workplace is now covered by law but is not yet compulsory in the home. It is up to all householders to take responsibility for their own health and that of their families and have their homes measured for radon. Testing is easy, and remediation, if required, is usually relatively inexpensive”, said RPII Director of Advisory Services, Dr Tony Colgan.

According to the research, the media has been central to educating the public about radon. One third of those aware of radon said they had heard about it on TV, with newspapers (29%) and radio (14%) also featuring prominently. A further 15 per cent of respondents said they had heard of radon through school or college.

The RPII has had a policy of targeting High Radon Areas throughout the country in its public awareness campaigns and has doubled its efficiency in detecting problematic homes as a result. Statistically, it can be expected that seven per cent of all homes will have measurements above the Reference Level for radon. Since the public awareness campaigns began in 2001, 15 per cent of all homes measured – the majority of them coming from High Radon Areas – have been found to be above the Reference Level.

“We are quite pleased with overall awareness levels of radon, which indicate some success for the information and publicity programmes which have been running through the media for the last number of years. However, it is possible for homes located outside High Radon Areas to still be exposed to radon concentrations above the Reference Level. It has always been our advice that all householders should measure for radon and I am now taking the opportunity to underline that advice” said Dr Colgan.

He added that the levels of concern among the population in parts of the country which had many High Radon Areas, including Connacht-Ulster and Leinster were above the national average, there was a significantly lower level of concern expressed in Dublin, which has the highest population density in the country. “Though it is less likely, we have still come across several problematic buildings in the greater Dublin area in recent years. The only answer is for all householders to take responsibility for this themselves. It is a simple message but a vital one”, he said.

In 2003 the Health and Safety Authority stated that in order to comply with Health and Safety legislation, all indoor workplaces in High Radon Areas must be measured for radon. Only 40% of respondents said they were concerned about the presence of radon gas in their workplaces, even though most workers would spend at least eight hours a day there. “While some employers have been diligent about testing for radon, there are still large number of workplaces that have yet to be measured. This is something we will be addressing seriously in the coming months” said Dr Colgan.

The RPII is planning a series of nationwide public information seminars on the dangers of radon gas for 2005. The first of these will be held in Ballina, Co. Mayo this week from 22nd to 24th February where it will have a manned display stand in the local shopping centre and meet with schools and the Chamber of Commerce.

Further information on radon, including maps of High Radon Areas throughout the country is available from the RPII website – www.rpii.ie/radon

Notes to Editors:

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. It is colourless, odourless and tasteless and can only be measured using specialised equipment. It is formed in the ground by the radioactive decay of uranium which is present in variable quantities in all rocks and soils.

Being a gas, radon has the ability to move through the soil and enter buildings through small cracks, holes or imperfections that may exist in the floor area.

Once in a building radon quickly decays to produce radioactive particles which are suspended in the air. When inhaled these particles can be deposited in the airways and attach themselves to lung tissue. This gives rise to a radiation dose which may eventually cause lung cancer.

From 1992 to 1999, the RPII carried out a National Survey of Radon in Dwellings. This survey classified areas in which greater than 10% of dwellings are predicted to have annual average radon concentrations greater 200 Bq/m3 as High Radon Areas. Approximately 33% of the country is classified as a High Radon Area.

The RPII advises all householders, particularly those living in High Radon Areas, to have their homes tested for radon.

The national Reference Level for radon in homes is 200 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3). The national Reference Level for radon in workplaces is 400 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3). The Becquerel is the unit of radioactivity.

More information on radon gas, radiation and the National Survey of Radon in Dwellings can be found on the radiation section of the website.