Seanad debates

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Radon Protection Measures: Statements


12:00 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Local Services, Department of Health and Children; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the current situation with respect to radon. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members of Seanad Éireann as I highly value the role and expertise of this House in policy development. It is timely, too, to hear Members' opinions, given the publication earlier this year of the latest data on radiation exposure by the Irish public. Last week Ireland's sixth national radon forum brought together representatives from a wide variety of agencies with a mutual interest in radon. It is always important to view our existing policy in the context of the most recent scientific data available and to take into account the views of other key stakeholders.

In July 2008 the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, published the results of a landmark study, Radiation Doses Received by the Irish Population. This report summarised the findings of a three-year baseline study and collection of relevant data on the exposure of the Irish population to ionising radiation. This study brought together data on exposures from natural sources, such as radon as well as artificial sources such as medial exposures and discharges from nuclear power stations abroad. Inclusion of all such exposure pathways make this study the most comprehensive assessment of radiation exposure ever undertaken in this country.

The report found that natural radiation sources account for almost 86% of all radiation exposure received by the Irish population. Radon alone accounts for 56% of total exposure. By comparison artificial radiation sources, such as overseas nuclear energy facilities, account for a mere 0.4% of the total radiation dosage we receive. The report concluded that, in terms of reducing our exposure to radiation, radon is the area where the greatest impact is possible.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas found in variable amounts in rocks and soil. When it surfaces in the open air, it is quickly diluted. However, where it enters an enclosed space, such as an ordinary building, it can, under certain circumstances accumulate to reach unacceptably high concentration levels. Ireland's unique geology, while providing us with a beautiful and rich landscape, gives rise to radon levels that are above the international average. Ireland has the sixth highest radon levels in the world. The average indoor radon concentration in Ireland, is 89 Becquerels per cubic metre, Bq/m3, compared to just 20 Bq/m3 in the UK and a European average of 59 Bq/m3.

Radon is a known carcinogen. Long-term exposure to high radon levels presents a direct risk to human health. This makes radon a public health issue. Naturally occurring radon gas concentrations have been found to contribute to the incidence of lung cancer. The RPII estimates that 150-200 annual lung cancer deaths in Ireland are linked to radon, around 10% to 15% of all such deaths. Epidemiological studies tells us that for smokers, or former smokers, the risk from radon can be up to 25 times greater than for people who never smoked.

Everybody needs to be aware of the risks from radon and of the potential health consequences if they are exposed to high radon concentrations. This is especially true in those areas designated as high radon areas where the risk of such exposure is greater. In particular, the RPII concerns itself with hazards to health associated with ionising radiation and with radioactive contamination in the environment from natural and artificial sources.

The national survey of radon in Irish dwellings was conducted by the RPII between 1992 and 1999. This survey quantified comprehensively the likely scale of the radon problem in Irish dwellings and identified those parts of the country where high indoor radon levels are more likely to be found. Approximately 28% of the country is designated as a high radon area, where more than 10% of households are predicted to have radon concentrations above the national reference level of 200 Bq/m3. This is the threshold defined by the RPII above which it is recommended that remediation works are carried out. High radon areas are found in almost every county but are mainly concentrated in the south east and the west. From the results of the national radon survey it was estimated that approximately 7% of our total housing stock has radon levels above the national reference level.

The RPII recommends that every householder has his or her home tested for radon. The RPII as well as a number of private companies offer a radon measurement service to householders. The cost of this service varies from €40 to €90. Radon measurement is non-intrusive, involving the placing of two small, palm-sized radon detectors in the home, and it takes three months to complete.

Part C of the Building Regulations 1997, Site Preparation and Moisture Resistance, require all new buildings, including new houses, constructed on or after 1 July 1998 to incorporate radon protection measures at the time of construction. The measures are as follows, for high radon areas, the installation of a radon proof membrane and stand-by radon sump in the foundations and for other areas, the installation of a stand-by radon sump only. It is recognised internationally that a radon barrier will not always be effective in preventing radon concentrations in new buildings above the national reference level. That is why new dwellings in high radon areas must also be fitted with a stand-by sump. Those radon prevention measures were in advance of building code requirements in many EU member states.

In October 2004, my Department published enhanced technical guidance on radon prevention in new buildings commencing construction on or after 1 April 2005 aimed at strengthening the 1997 provisions. This enhanced guidance strongly recommends that the householder measures radon soon after occupying the house. Such a measurement is the best way of ensuring that the required preventative measures are working correctly. Since 1998 more than half a million new homes have been constructed. It is most encouraging that these homes have radon protective measures in place from the outset.

Since May 2000, exposure to natural radiation sources in the workplace has been governed by the Radiological Protection Act 1991 (Ionising Radiation) Order 2000. This order sets a national reference level for radon gas in the workplace of 400 Bq/m3. In accordance with the order, an employer or self-employed person is required to measure radon levels in his or her workplace on being directed to do so by the RPII. To assess the risk from radon, the Health and Safety Authority has stated that all indoor workplaces in high radon areas must have radon measurements carried out.

In 1998 the Department of Education and Science commissioned the RPII to conduct a survey of radon levels in all primary and post-primary schools. In addition, in June 2001 a circular issued to all boards of management informing them of the Department's initiative and advising schools on the course of action necessary for radon mitigation. Schools with levels above 400 Bq/m3 were advised to secure the services of a suitably qualified consultant architect-engineer to carry out all necessary remedial works which are fully funded by the Department of Education and Science. Radon barriers are included in the design of all new school building projects. It was also recommended that a copy of the results be filed in each school's health and safety manual for future reference.

In 2004 the State Claims Agency, SCA, wrote to each Department to request that they undertake radon measurements in their premises. Up to 1 March 2006 measurements were made in 241 premises throughout the country. That is the majority of the workplaces measured on foot of the recommendation made by the SCA. Remediation measures have been undertaken where appropriate.

Proven, effective remediation techniques exist to reduce indoor radon concentrations at reasonable cost. The most common remediation techniques include under-floor ventilation, positive pressurisation, increased indoor ventilation and the sealing of cracks and gaps in the floor and around service entry points. The RPII can provide advice to householders and employers on the need for radon remediation and can give information on commonly used radon remediation techniques. There is nothing complex about these techniques and the majority involve relatively simple building work.

The scheme of housing aid for older people is already available to assist older people, generally over 60 years of age, to have necessary repairs or improvements carried out to their homes. Where a suite of works is being grant-aided under this scheme, local authorities may also, as part of the package of works, assist with the provision of radon remediation works, where applicable.

Last week, on Thursday, 6 November, I had the privilege of opening Ireland's Sixth National Radon Forum in the Royal College of Physicians. The theme of the forum was "How agencies can work together to assess, communicate and fix radon problems." The aim of the forum, in addition to raising public awareness, was to provide the opportunity for those with an interest in radon to meet and discuss issues of mutual interest. These included radon measurement companies, remediation companies, researchers, legislators, representatives of national agencies with responsibility for building standards, health and safety experts and the public. The centrepiece of the forum was a case study presentation by speakers from the RPII, Cork County Council and the Health Service Executive based upon a successful exercise earlier this year in north Cork. These three separate agencies came together to identify homes at risk from radon in north Cork and to take corrective action.

In September 2007 an office in the premises of The Corkman newspaper was found to have the second highest level of radon gas ever found in Ireland and the highest ever found in a workplace. The level detected was over 60 times higher than the acceptable limit and it is estimated that working eight hours a day in the office would be equivalent to receiving 39 chest X-rays per day or nearly 10,000 chest X-rays in a working year. In this case, the office in question was largely unoccupied and, on that basis, the employees would not have received such high radiation doses. On being told by the RPII of the high levels present in the office, the employer took immediate action to fix the problem.

The RPII subsequently organised a meeting of relevant organisations, including my Department, the HSE and Cork County Council, to discuss this incident and to explore the possibility of having a defined response to such incidents in the future. At this meeting Cork County Council announced its intention of measuring local authority homes around north Cork for radon. Subsequent meetings were held between the RPII, the HSE and Cork County Council which came together to share information and to assess and communicate radon risks to tenants. This co-operation was vital in reassuring those affected and in ensuring that all relevant information was made available to tenants.

The 600 homes identified as being most at risk from radon, located mostly around Mallow and Fermoy, have been tested. Remediation works have been completed in the 26 homes worst affected where radon levels exceed 800 Bq/m3. Additional remediation works are ongoing in remaining homes that were found to have radon levels above the national reference level.

The issue of high radon concentrations in local authority houses continues to be a matter of concern for my Department and a working group involving officials from my Department, local authorities and the RPII has recently been set up to provide clear guidance for local authorities on addressing this issue. It should be noted that a number of authorities are already taking action in this regard and it is our intention to build on their, and the RPII's, experience in this area. I understand that the group intends to finalise the guidance in the coming months.

The World Health Organisation reports that radon is linked to up to 170,000 lung cancer cases in the world each year. In 2005 the WHO established the international radon project, the aim of which is to identify effective strategies for reducing the health impact of radon. This project comprised a network of key partner agencies brought together by the WHO in 40 member states to examine the public health aspects of radon exposure. This project enjoys high priority within the WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment and is part-funded by the Irish Government. The international radon project raises awareness among the public, as well as among politicians, of the hazards of radon and promotes the development of co-ordinated programmes at national level to reduce the health impact from exposure to radon in WHO member states. Ireland plays a leading role in the international radon project, contributing both important scientific and practical input.

Dr. Ferid Shannoun, co-ordinator of the international radon project, addressed Ireland's national radon forum last week and endorsed the multi-agency approach to radon being adopted by Ireland. The WHO is expected to publish its international radon handbook in early 2009. This important publication, the culmination of many years' work and international co-operation, will provide guidelines for future radon remediation efforts in WHO member states. I am proud of the constructive contribution Ireland has made in its development.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government plays a key role, and will continue to play a key role, in implementing national policy on radon, not only as the parent Department of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland but also through its role in drafting building regulations and providing technical guidance on radon remediation solutions. Reducing radon health effects requires long-term commitment at local, national and global level. This can best be achieved by concentrating resources through an inter-agency approach and my Department will continue to work with other key stakeholders in this regard.

It is worth reiterating the key conclusion of the report, Radiation Doses Received by the Irish Population. In reducing our exposure to radiation, radon is the area where the greatest impact is possible. I look forward to hearing the contributions of individual Senators and, once again, I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for the opportunity of addressing the House on this important subject.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to debate this important item. We need to prioritise it at every level, not only at Parliament, but also in every agency with a role in raising the public awareness of the challenges posed by radon gas. Last week I attended the forum hosted by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland at the Royal College of Physicians. It was very informative and helped to improve public awareness and the response by agencies in areas where high levels of radon are identified. It is well known at this stage that Ireland has one of the highest levels of radon gas in the world, which is of concern. Higher levels have been identified in specific areas. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has done considerable groundwork in this regard. Its website contains very helpful maps of areas suspected to have high levels of radon.

The World Health Organisation acknowledges that radon gas is essentially a public health issue. The Health Service Executive also acknowledges this fact. People who smoke are 25% more likely to get lung cancer if exposed to radon gas, which presents a serious challenge that needs to be addressed.

I understand that the first reference level was set in 1990 at 200 Bq/m3, becquerels per cubic metre, for households. That was set before a household survey was carried out. Is that reference level adequate? Has it been scientifically proven that 200 Bq/m3 is the correct maximum level of radon to protect people's health and welfare?

While I mentioned the maps on the RPII website, they are not very detailed. They give large squares of coloured areas where it is suspected radon levels are high. With the modern measurement techniques that are available it is the responsibility of the institute to provide more accurate information to us. It might just be the first point of contact and give people an initial level of measurement. I know measurements are now being taken on a daily basis in many areas. These should be made available to the public so that people are aware of areas with high radon levels in their locality. The maps on the website indicate that east County Waterford, where I live, has very high levels of radon. Where tests were carried out by the local authority and by individuals, the levels were found not to be quite as high as indicated on the map. While I accept it may be hard to pin it down very accurately, we need to work in that regard. If we are to have adequate responses in areas where high radon levels are identified, it is essential to have very accurate and efficient databases showing those high levels. If we are to respond in an adequate fashion and put the resources where they are needed in a focused and specific way, we need factual evidence of high radon levels rather than the broad-brush indications on the maps before me.

It is quite simple to measure levels of radon, requiring the placement of a pocket-sized module. Over a period of three months it measures the radon gas levels. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland recommends that households should be tested. However, there is no obligation and it is left up to private individuals' awareness of the issue. The public need to be educated. I know some efforts have been made, about which I will talk later. However, there is not a great awareness of the dangers of radon gas. If people were aware, they would certainly take more notice.

Some people will recall the scares of the 1960s and 1970s regarding the problem of asbestos. It was used regularly in schools and other buildings here and in other countries. We eventually realised the dangers of asbestos and how it can contribute to lung cancer. Along with smoking it is one of the highest contributory causes of lung cancer. Radon should be put in that category if we want people to engage with the issue and be aware of it. After smoking, radon is one of the highest contributory causes of lung cancer. We do not hear as much talk about asbestos as we heard in the past 20 or 30 years. However, radon should be considered as the new challenge regarding lung cancer. If it achieves that kind of prominence, people will engage with it, as will authorities.

The reference level is set at 200 Bq/m3 for households and 400 Bq/m3 for workplaces. I am not a scientist and am unsure of the reason for the differential. I presume it is expected that an average person would spend twice as much time in the home as in the workplace. However, that may not be an accurate reflection of how people live and work nowadays. There are long shifts and workplaces that are constantly open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This matter needs to be reviewed to ensure we are using the appropriate reference levels. I would like the Minister of State to respond to that matter.

Employers have legal obligations to test their premises for radon, which is acknowledged in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act. The Minister of State mentioned that schools are also obliged to test. In referring to schools and other public buildings he stated:

Up to 1 March 2006 measurements were made in 241 premises throughout the country. That is the majority of the workplaces measured on foot of the recommendation made by the SCA.

I wonder whether a majority is acceptable. I would have thought that all public buildings and schools would need to be tested. That was in 2006 and we are now in 2008. If testing has not been carried out in public buildings and schools, it is essential for the Department to issue directions that all obligations for testing under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act be complied with. It is not sufficient to test only the majority. If people are being exposed in those circumstances, they have as much of a right as everybody else to be protected. That should be considered and the position should be improved.

I spoke briefly about public awareness earlier and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has played a major role in trying to raise awareness in this country. I commend its efforts as it has made contact with people through various agencies to raise public awareness, which is very important. I query the role of local authorities in the public awareness campaign, although at the radon forum last week a good example was given regarding a collaboration in north Cork. The Minister of State mentioned this in his speech. In Mallow, Fermoy and other places in the area, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, the HSE, the elected members of the local authority and the public worked in collaboration to raise awareness and define a systematic response to how they would address the radon levels identified.

Unfortunately, that is only one local authority area and many others around the country have no defined response mechanisms. I spoke to some senior officials in a number of local authorities when researching the matter. I asked them the role of the local authority in dealing with radon gas and I got a blunt but disappointing answer. They told me it has no role other than to ensure building regulations are complied with and the local authority housing stock has been tested and is being monitored for radon. There is significant potential for the local authority to play a much better role as it is a local government agency at the coalface.

I also asked if somebody rang a local authority inquiring about radon protection measures, would there be a contact to deal with such a request. There is not, although such a person would be referred to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. Any elected Member, councillor or member of the public will call to a council office first if he or she has a concern or a query. Some system or resource must be put into local authorities so they can have a mechanism to respond to queries raised by the public. It is essential and the process should not be left in an ad hoc fashion, for local authorities to prioritise as they see fit. A guideline should be issued from the Department giving radon protection measures a high priority and the local authorities a role, either through guidelines or a statutory function. Something must be done to ensure there is prioritisation of radon protection measures in local authorities other than building regulations.

I am aware that since 1998, radon barriers are obligatory in new buildings. I question the quality of those radon barriers, although I know certificates are meant to be submitted to local authorities indicating the barriers are in compliance with regulations. I wonder how many are inspected. I suspect very few are. I also suspect very few radon barriers are up to the required standard. Even after radon barriers are installed, there is no requirement to test for radon in a particular household afterwards to determine the efficiency of those radon barriers. Action could be taken, even if it is only one test a year after a radon barrier was installed in a newly-built house. That would ensure the barrier is doing the job it is meant to do.

I could continue forever speaking about remedial and preventative measures. The problems from radon gas are easy to remedy so there is hope where high levels are identified. There are techniques, either through circulation of airflow or sumps and pumps in sub-floors, which can address the problem where high levels of the gas are identified.

I welcome the debate. We all have a role to play in raising public awareness of the threats of radon and the damage it can do to our health. The Government should, through guidelines, bring all the agencies under its umbrella and that of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and perhaps use the example of Mallow and north Cork as a case study of a best practice model for other local authorities. That would bring about a responsive system to high levels of radon.

It is essential that such a system is put in place and continued resources and grant aid remains for areas where high levels of radon are identified. It is not good enough to put the same resources into every local authority. We should focus on the areas where high levels are clearly identified on the database and they should get the resources to respond adequately.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit atá sa Teach. We rightly hear much talk about health and safety at work but when we speak about radon gas, health and safety within the home should certainly come centre stage. A free local paper in Mullingar and Westmeath in general, the Westmeath Advertiser, indicated Westmeath has very high levels of radon, which is something about which to be concerned.

The Minister of State gave a very comprehensive report on the position pertaining to radon levels. If I touch on what he said, it is merely to emphasise the importance of the issue. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that originates from the decay of uranium in rocks and soils. It is colourless, odourless and tasteless and can only be measured using special equipment. That makes radon a silent killer.

When radon surfaces in the open air, it is quickly diluted to harmless concentrations but when it enters an enclosed space, such as a house or other building, it can sometimes accumulate to unacceptably high concentrations. Radon decays to form tiny radioactive particles, some of which remain suspended in the air. When inhaled into the lungs these particles give a radiation dose that may damage cells in the lung and eventually lead to lung cancer. I will touch on that issue later.

On the basis of a nationwide survey of radon in domestic dwellings, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, has estimated there are 91,000 houses in Ireland with radon concentrations in excess of 200 Bq/m3. This is the reference level above which the Government recommends that householders should consider carrying out remediation measures. Since July 1998, all new dwellings and long-stay buildings are required to incorporate some degree of radon preventative measures at the time of construction in accordance with the revised building regulations. The degree of protection required is dependent upon whether the site is located within a high or low radon area. The RPII, as well as a number of private contractors, provides radon measurement services for homes.

Workplaces have a reference level of 400 Bq/m3 and where they exceed this, employers must evaluate whether remedial action to reduce the radon concentration is justified. The question arises of how many workplace managers and proprietors test for radon; I suggest very few do so. I ask the Minister of State to focus on that issue. It is incumbent on all of us who are householders, either owners or lodgers, to ensure the environment we live in has safe levels of radon. A failure by those managers or proprietors to comply with a direction to take remedial action is an offence and can lead to prosecution, which is correct.

The RPII is the national organisation with regulatory, monitoring and advisory responsibilities in matters pertaining to ionising radiation. In particular the RPII concerns itself with hazards to health associated with ionising radiation and with radioactive contamination in the environment. The RPII was established in 1992 under the Radiological Protection Act 1991. The 12 members of the board are appointed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, six of them having been nominated by organisations with interests in various aspects of the RPII's work. It cannot be said this was just jobs for the boys as people with expertise are there, coming from a background as outlined earlier in my statement.

The RPII is financed by grant-aid from the Exchequer and by income from dosimetry, product certification and other services, licence charges and research and consultancy contracts. The RPII's principal objectives are to provide advice to the Government, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and other Ministers on matters relating to radiological safety; to provide information to the public on any matters relating to radiological safety which the institute deems fit; to maintain and develop a national laboratory for the measurement of levels of radioactivity in the environment and to assess the significance of these levels for the Irish population; to provide a personnel dosimetry and instrument calibration service for those who work with ionising radiation; to regulate by licence the custody, use, manufacture, importation, transportation, distribution, exportation and disposal of radioactive substances, irradiating apparatus and other sources of ionising radiation; to assist in the development of national plans for emergencies arising from nuclear accidents and to act in support of such plans; to provide a radioactivity measurement and certification service; to prepare codes and regulations for the safe use of ionising radiation; to carry out or promote research in relevant fields; to monitor developments abroad relating to nuclear installations and radiological safety generally, and to keep the Government informed of their implications for Ireland; to co-operate with the relevant authorities in other states and with appropriate international organisations; to represent the State on international bodies; and to be the competent authority under international conventions on nuclear matters.

I hope those objectives are being realised because of their importance to public health. I worked with the director of public health in the Health Service Executive in the then Midland Health Board. He was an excellent fellow. I exhort the department of public health in the HSE and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure the responsibilities of the organisations to which I referred are being carried out diligently and effectively because of their importance to public health.

Radon decays to form tiny radioactive particles, some of which remain suspended in the air. When inhaled into the lungs those particles give a radiation dose, which may damage cells in the lung and eventually lead to lung cancer. Radon levels are measured in the manner outlined in the Minister of State's speech. The reference level for long-term exposure to radon in a house, above which the need for remedial action should be considered, is 200 Bq/m3. That is determined in accordance with the RPII's standard protocol.

Since 1998, every new house is required to incorporate some degree of radon preventive measures at the time of construction in accordance with the revised building regulations. The degree of protection required is dependent upon whether the site is located within a high radon area. It is important to bring to centre stage the importance of radon levels. I would like it to go out from this House today through our friends in the media that all householders should have their homes tested and that employers should test their premises for radon levels. That is imperative.

There is a range of radon concentrations over which some common remediation techniques are likely to be effective. It can be seen that at radon concentrations of 300 Bq/m3, any type of remediation is likely to be effective in reducing radon concentrations to below the reference level. Addressing the problem does not have to cost an arm and a leg, as taking even basic measures can significantly reduce the level of radon. For radon concentrations greater than 1,000 Bq/m3, installation of an active sump is always the preferred remediation option.

Some householders opt to undertake radon remediation on a phased basis. That means the simplest, least expensive solution which offers reasonable potential for achieving the desired reduction is undertaken first. Following that, the house is retested and if the radon concentrations have not been lowered sufficiently, then other measures are installed progressively until the required radon reduction is achieved. Alternatively, more extensive and therefore more expensive radon remediation measures may be undertaken to begin with to ensure the radon concentrations will be reduced sufficiently on the first attempt.

The Minister referred to a high concentration of radon gas in an office premises that was little used. However, as everybody knows, that situation can change at short notice. The radon levels in that location were equivalent to having a four figure sum of X-rays in any one year. Such a situation gives rise to a high degree of concern. Radon is invisible and odourless, which makes it a silent killer. This debate is very important. We all have a responsibility for our own health and as a consequence, it is incumbent on us, as legislators, to ensure effective legislation is enacted, followed by regulation and enforcement to ensure homes and workplaces are radon free and safe.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. He knows where I live, which is not far from his constituency. I did not know anything about radon, until some years ago when a new apartment block, which was built on the road not far from where I lived at the time had to be evacuated because of a radon scare. People were out of their homes for at least two years. I agree entirely with what I heard of the Minister of State's speech and what was said by Senator Glynn. There is a responsibility on all of us to ensure we protect our own health. I hope the purpose of today's debate will be to spread the message much wider because many people are unaware of the dangers of radon gas.

Radon, which can cause lung cancer, is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas, and occurs naturally from the decay of radioactive uranium in rocks and soils. What happened in the case to which I referred is that a dump had been located on the site previously and whatever was in it caused the problem with high radon emissions. At least 100,000 Irish homes have unacceptably high levels of radon. Radon occurs naturally in the ground in many parts of Ireland and frequently gets trapped in buildings. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, warned last year that certain areas in Cork were worst affected. The Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, referred to that point. Radon is the second biggest cause of lung cancer in Ireland and causes up to 200 deaths per year. Irish people are still being exposed to levels of radiation that are 40% higher than the world average. I was unaware of that information, which is based on research carried out by the RPII and published in July 2008.

We have a big problem with radon in this country. Irish people are exposed to levels of radiation that are 40% higher than the world average. That is equivalent to an average of 200 chest X-rays per year. Recently, a family living in a house in County Waterford was found to be receiving radiation doses equivalent to 33 chest X-rays per day because of radon levels at their home. When one has a chest X-ray everybody who works there has to leave the room for the duration of the X-ray because of the dangers of repeated exposure. It is difficult to imagine a family receiving radiation does equivalent to 33 chest X-rays per day in their home.

Radon effects can sometimes be relieved by something as simple as improving ventilation in the house or by installing a wall or window vent. However, the RPII says that if radon levels are very high, the commonest measure is to have a radon sump installed beneath the property to divert the gas away from the building. The cost of a installing a radon sump is approximately €1,500. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has confirmed that the Government has no specific budget to combat radon gas emissions and no specific grants scheme is available to private householders to retrofit radon barriers to existing homes, although in certain circumstances the work could be covered by the housing aid for the elderly grant scheme. Why is that the case and is there any intention to change the situation?

In light of the effect of the radon gas problem, that is, 200 deaths per year, the Government should provide a grant or tax relief to assist people in installing what is clearly a preventative mechanism, although not a cure. A test kit is available to monitor radon levels in homes and workplaces in hotspots. The kits are available from the RPII but there are no grants available to the private householder for their purchase. A grant for the purchase of radon monitors should be partly funded by the Government. Although the Government has other high priorities in respect of spending at present, will the Minister of State give some attention to this? We must use the media to promote recognition of the problem and then find a way to encourage people to do something about it.

While the Department of Education and Science is addressing the problem of radon in schools, we must redouble our efforts to ensure all buildings are checked for radon. In particular we need to do more to keep it out of homes and, as stated by other Senators, out of offices. Radon testing should be carried out during the house sale process and should be part of the procedure of buying a new house. We really must address the problem, which is the second biggest cause of lung cancer in the country. It causes 200 deaths per year.

Of the 600 homes surveyed by the RPII in Mallow last year, one in four had random levels of radon equivalent to the level of radiation delivered by 12 to 15 X-rays per day. The World Health Organisation has called for a multi-agency approach involving the HSE, local authorities and the RPII in areas with a known radon gas emission problem. The successful scheme in Mallow in Cork involved these authorities working together to tackle the problem. The problem in Mallow involved the detection of radon by the RPII, a risk assessment by the RPII and the health services and corrective measures on the part of Cork County Council in property owned by the council itself. Private householders were given advice on the best course of action.

In conjunction with offering a grant for radon detectors, the Government should use the programme to relieve the effects of radon gas in Mallow as a model for the rest of the country. In this way, I hope we can prevent the many needless deaths caused by this secret and not well-known killer. The vast majority of citizens are not aware of radon gas and most of us have not done anything to protect ourselves. Government initiative is required and it will involve publicity. This debate will help in this regard. However, it is not just a question of publicity but of the Government telling citizens they can do something about the problem with the encouragement and financial assistance of the State. In this way, we will save lives.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to the House. I am glad of the opportunity to say a few words on the severe problem of radon gas. The comments of Senator Quinn and the Minister of State suggest the experience in Mallow and north Cork is now widely regarded as an example of how to investigate and, I hope, resolve the problem of radon gas.

I raised the issue of radon gas on a few occasions in the House because north Cork, including Mallow, which is very well known to me, is one of the areas where radon gas levels have been found to be excessively and dangerously high. As has been said by Senator Quinn, Cork County Council, in conjunction with Mallow Town Council and the RPII, has done extensive work over recent months to investigate radon gas levels and advise householders on the extent of the problem. I certainly welcome the initiative of the local authorities in this regard. That project in Mallow should be replicated in each local authority area. The statistics gleaned by Cork County Council and Mallow Town Council pertain to towns such as Mallow, Doneraile, Buttevant, Mitchelstown and Fermoy, all of which come within the parameters of the survey. The work was done on local authority housing stock.

We should encourage and instruct every private householder to obtain a radon testing kit and conduct a test on his own home. I believe the kits are relatively expensive. The householder can carry out the test himself once the kit is purchased. We aspire to have tests carried out throughout the country.

On planning ahead, I suggest to the Minister of State that every planning permission application should require the local authority in question to have knowledge of the radon level at the site in question. This would at least ensure the problem would be tackled. Radon poses a severe problem and unfortunately causes deaths. Unlike some cancer-causing agents, the radon problem can be resolved inexpensively. There are a number of systems in place to detect radon gas and resolve the problem it poses. At least there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Those carrying out tests on their properties can at least be consoled by the fact that detected problems can be resolved. Future housing projects, irrespective of whether they comprise apartment blocks or individual houses, should involve radon testing as a matter of planning policy, such that any radon problem that arises can be tackled.

The work of the RPII must be lauded, as must that of the local authorities that have taken the initiative, such as Mallow Town Council and Cork County Council. Their project was certainly positive and proactive.

Affected householders, when they receive letters from the local authority outlining the scale of the problem, can be frightened and concerned. They are concerned that, in some cases, the solution is not offered immediately. It can take months or even a full year. We have received commitments from Cork County Council, in particular, that the houses with the most severe radon gas levels will be subject to remediation immediately. Houses with severe but less dangerous levels are to be subject to remediation over the next 12 months or so. I welcome this but we need to reflect on and continue to remind people that the houses in question are simply those of local authorities. Thousands of private houses not only in north Cork but also in the rest of the country need to be tested also. We must try to encourage their owners to carry out the tests.

I thank the Minister of State for attending and my colleagues for organising this debate. It is part of the information campaign required to advise people on the radon gas problem. Significantly more could be done through television and newspaper advertising. By advertising the dangers of radon gas and the likelihood of it existing in certain parts of the country, we could simultaneously let people know that there is a relatively inexpensive solution whereby they can test their own properties, install this equipment and get results quickly. If a problem is found, there is a method to resolve it. We must work to encourage more people to have their houses tested and must insist that local authorities carry out a wide audit and check of their estates across the known black spots in the country.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the fact that we have taken time to debate this very important issue.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, estimates that more than 100,000 houses have unacceptably high levels of radon but the general public and the media do not seem to be aware of the dangers. Last year the institute warned that some radon gas pockets exhibit detectable levels that are 60 times greater than the acceptable level. These pockets can exist in rural households, in apartment blocks and estates, in basements and attics, almost anywhere where people live. Radon gas is a silent, odourless invisible killer and is the second highest cause of lung cancer after smoking. To put that in perspective, 200 people every year can be predicted to die from radon poisoning, more or less the same number of people killed in road accidents. In County Meath, one would expect approximately eight people to die every year from the effects of radon gas. That figure might be too low because, according to the RPII website, some parts of the county, such as Ashbourne, Dunshaughlin, Ratoath and Stamullen, have extremely high levels of radon. One out of every five houses is expected to be exposed to above acceptable levels and to require remedial action. However, there are no visible campaigns, no media outrage, no billboards and no general awareness of this situation.

Radon occurs naturally from the decay of radioactive uranium in rocks and soils. This natural basis of occurrence, combined with the fact that we cannot smell, taste, touch or see radon gas, appears to have nurtured inappropriate levels of apathy on the part of the public at large. That radon occurs naturally makes it no less dangerous or damaging than a by-product from a manufacturing process. The RPII estimates that one third of the country is classified as having high radon gas levels. It is worrying that the recent World Health Organisation, WHO, survey on radon gas suggests we have the sixth highest radon gas levels in the world. At current levels, the equivalence is of everybody having an x-ray once a day. When a person has an x-ray in hospital bystanders are shielded from the impact of radiation. One can imagine what it means to have every person exposed to one x-ray a day. That is the prevalence and impact of radon gas in this country.

Dwellings constructed in the past ten years are at a lower risk of radon exposure because regulations since 1997 have determined that new dwellings constructed in radon areas must have in place a permanent sealed membrane. Senator Coffey pointed out that there have been instances in which these membranes have not been put in place comprehensively in the new buildings. It is vital that the effectiveness of radon testing is promoted with respect to buildings more than ten years old. The RPII has devised a very simple efficient and cheap test for householders to test the existence of radon gas. We must all make sure our constituents and people at large are aware of this service.

Ten years ago the RPII conducted a survey in primary and post-primary schools to establish the levels of radon gas. The wide ranging study took six years to complete and covered approximately 95% of schools across the country. As a result of that survey, the Department of Education and Science carried out remedial works on those schools and is to be commended on doing this. Given that this study is at least five years old, further surveys should be carried out to establish whether things have changed. While not as many as we would like, significant numbers of new schools have been built since then. It would be sensible to test those for radon gas levels.

Interesting research is being carried out in some parts of the world. In the United States, for example, The New York Times reported recently on a study that suggested that granite worktops in kitchens might be responsible for emitting high levels of radon gas. The article suggested that when kitchens have granite worktops the incidence of radon gas might be ten times higher than levels found elsewhere in the house. The Minister might examine this.

The last time this issue was debated in the Dáil, the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Dick Roche, informed the House that there had been a disappointing uptake of radon detection schemes offered by the RPII. I suspect the take up is still quite low. Although the institute has carried out extensive and excellent work on the subject, it would make sense to have a communication campaign to raise awareness, as other Senators, including Senator Bradford mentioned. The Government does not currently provide grants for radon remediation. When questioned on this in the Dáil, the then Minister, Deputy Roche, stated, "The awareness of the public is considered to be a more effective approach than the provision of State financial assistance schemes to householders for radon testing of their homes or for radon remediation works."

That statement is open to debate. Senator Quinn suggested it might be time to reconsider the provision of grants. The value of the average Irish life is probably worth at least €1.5 million. Assuming we are witnessing the deaths, due to radon gas, of 200 people a year, that is equivalent to the loss to society of approximately €300 million a year. Perhaps grants might be justifiable. However, in the absence of Government grants, we need an effective information campaign. The RPII found recently that 75% of survey respondents were very much aware of the dangers of radon gas but there is little information to determine how many households have taken the necessary steps to alleviate the presence of this gas. In 2006, the total expenditure allocated to the RPII for information awareness campaigns was only €190,000. Such an allocation is not sufficient to raise the level of awareness nationally. One must also consider a possible saving of €300 million in respect of value to the economy if the number of deaths due to exposure to radon could be reduced.

A random survey of radon levels in Irish dwellings was carried out twice, in 1992 and in 1999. Since then, a significant number of houses have been built across the country and, as mentioned, there have been instances where the radon membranes put in place have not been comprehensive. Is it time to carry out another random survey to establish, particularly in new houses in the commuter belt, the levels and presence of radon gas? The previous survey may be out of date. I ask the Minister of State to take on board those points.

1:00 pm

Photo of Martin BradyMartin Brady (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time with Senator O'Donovan. I welcome the Minister of State as we discuss this very important subject.

There is a very low level of awareness of radon gas levels, as previous speakers noted. I knew very little of it until I read up on it yesterday evening. We must zone in on this and ensure the level of awareness is increased. There are many ways of doing this. In workplaces nowadays, for instance, there are health and safety committees and officers. They should be fully briefed on the problems and a level of awareness might be increased in that way. If one used that vehicle, the RPII or the Health and Safety Authority could brief those people. Most health and safety committees in the workplace run courses about general workplace health and safety issues. They should also provide information on radon gas. It is alarming that Ireland has among the highest levels of this killer gas in the world. The health and safety statements employers are required to publish in the workplace should also include information on radon. This would also create awareness in homes.

Few people are aware that it is possible to have one's home tested for radon gas. I only learned this was possible when the Minister of State spoke. This information should be made more widely available in the public domain.

In 2004, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government published technical guidance on radon prevention in new buildings which commenced construction after 1 April 2005. The guidance was aimed at strengthening the 1997 provisions. Few people, even among those involved in heath and safety issues, are aware of this guidance.

The degree of radon protection required is independent of whether a site is located in a high radon area. Such areas are identified by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland as areas where in excess of 10% of houses are expected to have radon gas levels above the national reference level. Under the Building Control Act 1990, compliance with the building regulations is primarily the responsibility of the designers, builders and owners of buildings. Local building control authorities are empowered to monitor buildings for compliance and take enforcement action if necessary. Are the regulations being enforced? Are the local authorities monitoring compliance and taking enforcement action? It is important to ascertain whether all the relevant parties are rowing in and playing their part.

Events such as the national radon forum opened by the Minister of State in the Royal College of Physicians create awareness of radon. Information is crucial because one cannot do much about something if one does not know about it. We should pursue this track and ensure awareness is increased in an efficient manner. I reiterate that this could be done by local health and safety committees.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Brady for allowing me to say a few words and welcome the Minister of State to the House. I would prefer to discuss issues such as fishing, farming and tourism because I do not know a great deal about radon gas. I confess, however, that the woman with whom I share a home has two devices for measuring radon gas, one suspended from a light fixture and another in the bedroom. She has much greater knowledge of the issue than I have. I await the results of the measurements which will become available after three months.

Radon gas is odourless, colourless and tasteless, which is alarming and a monkey on our back. As one who has never smoked, it is frightening to learn that long-term exposure to radon gas can damage health and cause cancer. The dangers of radiation from the masts being erected throughout the country to facilitate mobile telephone use and so forth are the subject of an ongoing debate in west Cork. This is not a parochial issue as the dangers of overhead power lines are also a major issue in the Meath-Cavan area. I speak as a layperson who does not have knowledge of the sciences but I am informed that these power lines emit radiation and some experts argue they can cause cancer. In my area, we had public meetings and a hue and cry about the possibility that these masts cause radiation. Is that the case?

Senator Brady referred to building regulations. Have these been enforced and has the Construction Industry Federation come on board? Has monitoring been done on the many houses built recently? If so, what were the results? Are health and safety officers trained to deal with this issue or is their role confined to dealing with the physical safety and security of workers? Does the Department have inspectors who are able to visit new housing estates to ensure radon protection devices are installed in homes? If not, the Department should ensure such inspections take place.

The €56 charge for installing radon protectors in the home is a wonderful idea, especially in blackspots such as Mallow. Local authorities such as Mallow Town Council, perhaps assisted by a departmental pilot scheme, should provide these devices at a reduced rate or free of charge to old age pensioners or people on social welfare. There are probably no more than 700 householders in the Mallow area who cannot afford the devices. Perhaps a pilot scheme has already been put in place.

Has the householder's guide to radon gas been distributed to all households? I remember, as a child of about ten, a booklet arriving at my home informing my family that we would have to board up windows and doors and use a cellar, if we had one, as a bunker in the event of a nuclear attack. According to the American propaganda of the time, we were at war with Russia and it could be necessary to hide, whether under a haystack or somewhere else. The booklet distributed to all households in the mid-1960s frightened the life out of me because I had not heard about the issue previously.

I am glad to contribute to this debate. Given that radon gas is a source of concern, perhaps we are not doing enough to address the problem. I ask the Minister of State to respond to the couple of points I raise, that is if they make sense because I confess that my knowledge of the issue is limited.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Local Services, Department of Health and Children; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators who contributed to this productive and thought-provoking debate on the hazards posed by radon gas. We discussed the protection measures implemented to date and future strategies to further remediate Ireland's radon problem. I will consider fully the views and opinions expressed by Senators which my officials have noted carefully. Their contributions reflect the importance of this subject as a public health issue and they will be noted as we develop future policy.

In concluding the debate, it is appropriate that I address areas in which it is proposed to focus our efforts to tackle the problems posed by radon. I referred to a report, entitled Radiation Doses Received by the Irish Population, which identified three areas where further studies could prove useful.

On radon in homes, the present estimates of radon in our national housing stock are based on measurements taken between 1992 and 1997 and national statistics of the housing stock in 2000. Since then, the housing stock has increased from 1.3 million to 1.7 million units. Ireland's building regulations have been revised and radon prevention measures are now required in all new homes built since July 1998. The influence of both these factors on the distribution of radon in homes should be assessed and revised and individual and collective dose estimates derived therefrom.

On the issue of radon in above ground workplaces, Ireland is one of the few countries worldwide to have undertaken a detailed assessment of the importance of radon exposure in the workplace and its contribution to total dose. The RPII is to be acknowledged for its pioneering work in this area. It is estimated that radon accounts for almost 98% of the total occupational radiation dose received in the workplace. Revised Estimates should be prepared as more information becomes available. Whether statistically significant differences in radon concentrations exist between different building types should also be explored. A very extensive body of data now exists on radon concentrations as well as the costs and effectiveness of radon remediation in Irish schools. Cost-benefit analyses should be undertaken to compare different remediation strategies in homes and schools, to identify the optimum approach towards reducing radon exposures. Any radon study should be carried out in close co-operation with existing radon remediation companies and the building industry. My Department will work in close partnership with the RPII to further develop these suggested areas of study.

The RPII has submitted a discussion document to my Department, which contains a number of suggestions aimed at increasing the rate at which homes with high radon concentrations are identified and subsequently remediated. The plan identifies the following initiatives for consideration: high profile information and media campaign to be managed jointly by the RPII, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Health and Children; a study to be commissioned on the feasibility of including radon measurement and remediation in the house conveyancing process; improved implementation of the building regulations to further reduce radon concentrations on newly built homes; the number of such homes and radon concentrations above the reference level; the home bond scheme to be extended to include the installation of radon barriers and sumps; a programme for free radon measurements in high radon areas; and some financial assistance for householders where there are reductions of radon concentrations above the national reference level.

The RPII recommendations are broad in scope and go beyond the responsibilities of any one organisation. It is clear that inter-agency co-ordination and co-operation will be required to make progress on these issues and my Department will be engaging with other key stakeholders in this regard. I will comment on some of the points raised.

Senator Coffey talked about the map on the website. By January 2009 there will, hopefully, be a new map, updated by the RPII. I fully agree with his comments about the role of local authorities and the need for a contact point there. Senator Glynn again raised the issue of inter-agency co-operation. This is very important. The HSE, my Department and the RPII are very much involved in dealing with those issues. I also agree with Senator Quinn who talked about the need to spread the message. I have answered some of the issues relating to funding which will be looked at in the future.

As regards Senator Bradford's point on radon testing and remediation services to local authorities — I am aware of his interest in the north Cork area — a departmental working group was formed in 2008 with representatives from the RPII and the social housing, environmental radiation policy and building standards sections. The purpose of the working group was to develop guidance and support for local authorities on addressing the risk from radon in social housing. The aim of such guidance was to minimise the risk posed by radon on social housing through agreed, co-ordinated and cost-effective measures, drawing on the successful inter-agency approach employed in north Cork as well as the experience of other local authorities and the expertise of the RPII. There is ongoing dialogue on those issues.

An issue was raised by Senator Hannigan in relation to radon protection schemes. I would like to promote such schemes and to improve the communications on those issues. Senator Martin Brady raised a very good point of the message in the workplace, which we are very keen to promote. He said the message was also being brought home by those workers who had experience of this type of study. Senator O'Donovan made a point about the radiation from power lines. Power lines, I understand, produce non-ionising radiation. The RPII is responsible for ionising radiation and we have not, as yet, availed of its expertise on non-ionising radiation. However, the RPII's mandate is to be expanded to include non-ionising radiation, which will be phased in, and I hope to have further information on that. He also raised the building regulations for newer houses, which I have dealt with.

On the other point he made about the radiation booklet, that is available free on the RPII website. It is important to put that message out loud and clear. The majority of public buildings have been evaluated. We have identified significant areas in the radiation doses report as regards evaluating the effective building regulations and radon levels as an area for future study. I hope we will have more information on that in the future.

I have every confidence that the studies undertaken and the data accumulated, together with the partnership approach we are adopting, will serve us well in facing up to the challenges posed by radon and ultimately reduce the exposure levels of the public to the damaging effects of radiation. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to have this debate in the House.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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At 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 18 November 2008.