Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

3:00 pm

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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Question 86: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will introduce a grant to people whose homes have been identified with high radon gas concentrations and who are living alone on a weekly State pension of €209.30, to assist them with the cost of retrofitting their home against radon gas. [7620/07]

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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For many years, the Government, through the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, has committed significant resources to assessing the incidence of radon gas, highlighting public awareness of it and the health risks associated with prolonged exposure to high concentrations.

During the 1990s, the RPII carried out a nationwide survey of radon gas in domestic dwellings. Based on its results, the RPII estimated that 91,000 houses, approximately 7% of the national housing stock, have radon concentration levels in excess of the national reference level of 200 Bq/m3. This is the reference level adopted by the Government for houses, and the level above which it is recommended that radon remediation works should be considered. The nature of the survey does not make it possible to estimate the number of occupants, whether they are elderly people or people in receipt of social welfare payments, living in houses estimated to have radon levels above the reference level.

The testing of houses for radon is a straightforward, non-invasive and inexpensive process, costing approximately €50. Furthermore, in many situations, relatively straightforward and inexpensive remediation measures, such as improved ventilation, can be effective in reducing radon concentration levels.

I understand from the RPII that in recent years, information has been provided to it from the public and contractors that enables it to keep general track of the cost of remediation work. On that basis, the average cost of remediation is between €2,000 and €3,000 per house. The most expensive remediation work brought to the Department's attention cost €8,000, and that was a unique case.

The RPII keeps a list of contractors who provide remediation services. That list is offered as a public service. The RPII recommends that any householder planning to carry out remediation should contact several such contractors to get the most competitive quotation.

There is no provision for a State grant to assist in remediation work; nor had that been included in the types of works covered in the past by the essential repairs grant or the special housing aid for the elderly scheme. However, in the context of the new housing aid for older people scheme, which is to be introduced later this year, and in deference to the Deputy, I will have the Department examine the possibility that where a suite of works is grant-aided to make an older person's home habitable and radon levels are of serious concern, radon remediation measures might be allowable.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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I welcome the last part of the answer; the rest I knew fairly well already, having asked the question perhaps 15 times in the course of the Government's life. I am a very strong believer in pursuing matters to the point where the responsible person is caught.

I thank the Minister for his helpful inclusion of radon remediation under the grant scheme. Perhaps we might go a little further. Will the Minister also consider the very similar community works scheme under which doors, windows and draught exclusion measures are provided to keep older people warm? While ventilation is important, the type available in the houses of which I speak would not be sufficient to exclude radon gas, as I am sure the Minister is aware. Does he agree that we cannot continue spending taxpayers' money making houses comfortable and warm for old people but leaving them in a situation where they could die as a result of the additional insulation provided? Previously, draughts would have allowed radon gas to blow out of houses.

There is a very easy way of measuring numbers. If one includes radon gas in the schemes of home improvement for the elderly, including the essential repairs grant and the community works scheme, one will get the figures very quickly. Perhaps the Minister of State might respond.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Obviously, the more often a Deputy asks a question, the more likely it is that he will get an answer to his liking.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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It is pester power.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We have a very open mind on the matter, since we have serious concerns, and we want to ameliorate the situation as much as possible. However, I temper my answer by saying this.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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I hope the Minister of State does not take the good out of it.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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In countries where a grants system has been established, for example, in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Denmark, it has not improved the take-up. Even where people are aware that radon levels are high and that assistance is available, it is surprising how low uptake has been. Denmark in particular, having examined its scheme's cost-effectiveness, decided that a far better mechanism to save lives would be to concentrate on getting individuals to give up smoking. The Deputy will understand where I am coming from. The Danes have concentrated on that issue, since in more than 90% of deaths arising in a situation where radon is present, the victims are smokers.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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It is important that we do not allow a red herring to be drawn across the trail. The Minister of State will be aware of many international studies on radon gas and smoking. Even where there is an overlap, the evidence is very clear that radon gas is a lethal killer, causing lung cancer; in Ireland, it is estimated to cause 200 deaths per year. It is quite extraordinary that we do not pay more attention to that entirely preventable list of deaths, particularly in the case of older people who cannot afford remedial work. I am very surprised at the figures and would love to know from which contractors the Minister got them, since I have seen estimates of €10,000 to €12,000 to retro-fit a standard house. I have come across that several times rather than in only one case. To fit in the first instance is not that costly.

I urge the Minister to look favourably on the essential repairs grant, the disabled person's grant and the community works scheme as they apply to people on low incomes who might not be able to afford this.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Regarding the figures that I quoted, we tell people to shop around, and we have a list of contractors. Our evidence is that the general norm is €2,000 to €3,000. If a contractor is charging €8,000 or €9,000, we would like to see evidence of those charges, and we will deal with them and inform customers where they might secure much better value for money. I do not want to underestimate the dangers associated with radon gas. Given our concern, I am quite willing to take suggestions on board. We will examine them and consider the feasibility of including them in the new scheme.