Radon contributes more than half the radiation dose received by Irish people

Date released: Dec 15 2008

RPII publish annual report for 2007. Radon gas accounts for 56 per cent of the average annual radiation dose received by Irish people, and greatly exceeds the dose due to either medical exposure at 13.7 per cent or artificial sources of radiation (including discharges from Sellafield) of 0.4 per cent., according to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII).

Radon is the primary source of radiation exposure in Ireland, according to the RPII annual report published today. Some 86 per cent of the average person’s dose comes from natural radiation sources in the environment, such as radon, thoron and cosmic radiation. Meanwhile, 13.7 per cent comes from diagnostic medical procedures and just 0.4 per cent comes from man-made sources such as residues from nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Chernobyl accident and radioactive discharges from Sellafield. 

In addition to the data presented for the Irish population as a whole, the report also shows that to date over 4000 homes across the country have been identified with high radon levels, with 262 of these having levels more than 5 times the national Reference Level. 

Speaking at the launch of the 2007 Annual Report, Dr Ann McGarry, Chief Executive of the RPII, said: “These striking figures show that radon is a serious public health issue in Ireland. It points to the need for a national radon strategy, coordinated at national level, but with key local organisations playing a significant role”. 

“Earlier this year the RPII worked closely with Cork County Council (North Division) and the Health Service Executive to assess, communicate and fix the radon problem in north Cork. It’s this type of cooperation and joined-up thinking from all those involved which will help reduce the radiation dose from radon and the risk of lung cancer. I commend Cork County Council for their proactive approach and urge all other local authorities across the country to follow their example,” continued Dr McGarry. 

The annual report also highlights another key radiation protection issue – the call for a national radioactive waste policy. The need for such a policy was again highlighted during 2007 where, in a joint operation with An Garda Síochána, an RPII inspector seized an unlicensed radioactive source having concluded that the storage arrangements were unsuitable from a security perspective. The individual involved in this case was prosecuted for unlicensed custody of a radioactive source. 

The RPII continues to closely monitor international activities and safety of nuclear installations abroad under its remit to keep the Government informed of their implications for Ireland. In August 2007, the RPII visited the La Hague reprocessing plant and the Flamanville nuclear power plant in Normandy, the site of a new European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) which is due to go on line in 2012. 

Other developments during 2007 highlighted in the annual report include: 

  • A 10 per cent increase in the number of licences in force, bringing the total to 1652 by the end of the year. The majority of new licences were in the dental and veterinary sectors and were as a result of initiatives by RPII to bring previously unlicensed practices within regulatory control.
  • The highest radon level ever found in a workplace in Ireland, at almost 25,500 Bq/m3, was measured in an office in Mallow between May and August. This level is over 60 times the Reference Level - the acceptable level for radon in a work place (400 Bq/m3). Fortunately, this did not give rise to significant radiation doses to the staff due to the limited occupancy of the room in question.
  • Under the national Framework for Major Emergency Management, the RPII assisted in the drafting of the Protocol for Multi-Agency Response to Radiological/Nuclear Emergencies which outlines the arrangements for a given category of emergency and sets out the provisions for linking the National Emergency Plan for Nuclear Accidents with the other major emergency plans. 

Ends 

Note to Editor: 

Radiation 

Radiation can be considered to fall into two broad groups: naturally occurring and man-made radiation. Natural radiation sources include radon, thoron, cosmic rays, gamma radiation from the ground and natural radionuclides in food and water. Man-made radiation is used in medicine and industry. It also comes from the generation of nuclear power and the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in facilities such as Sellafield. For the same radiation dose, there is no difference between the harm caused by naturally occurring and man-made radiation. 

Radon 

By the end of 2007, the RPII had measured radon in 33,869 homes in Ireland, but only 4314 of the estimated 91,000 homes above the national Reference Level (200 Bq/m3) had been identified. Of the homes with high radon levels, the highest percentages were found in counties Galway, Sligo and Waterford. Two hundred and sixty two homes had levels above 1000 Bq/m3. 

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced in all rocks and soils and because it is a gas it can move relatively freely through the ground entering buildings through any cracks or gaps that exist in floors. In certain circumstances radon can build up to unacceptable high concentrations becoming a health risk to the occupants of a building. 

Radon is a Class-1 carcinogen. Long-term exposure to radon increases the risk of lung cancer. Based on current knowledge it is estimated that in Ireland, for the population as a whole, a lifetime exposure (i.e. 70 years) to radon in the home at the Reference Level of 200 Bq/m3 carries a risk of about 1 in 50 of contracting fatal lung cancer. This is approximately twice the risk of death in a road accident. Radon is linked to approximately 200 lung cancer deaths in Ireland every year. For people who smoke, or who have smoked, the risk from radon is considerably greater than for people who never smoked. 

High Radon Areas are shown on maps published on the RPII website. A High Radon Area is an area where more than 10% of the homes are predicted to have annual average radon concentrations above the national reference level. Approximately 33% of the country is classified as a High Radon Area. These areas are most prevalent in the Southeast and the West.