Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

7:00 am

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, who is here to reply to this matter, which relates to the dangers of radon gas. Radon is a radioactive gas which is present in the ground and which, when it rises above certain levels, is a threat to public health. It is colourless, odourless and tasteless. It can be in one's house and one will not realise it is present. The World Health Organisation has carried out many analyses in respect of this gas. It has been established that the presence of radon is linked to more than 200 lung cancer related deaths in Ireland per annum.

High levels of radon have been detected in Waterford and the south east in general. Evidence of this is provided in the national survey carried out by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII. In fairness, the latter carries out regular awareness campaigns and invites stakeholders, such as local authorities and various State bodies and agencies, or those with a role or interest in raising awareness interest in this problem to take part in its radiological protection forum.

There is a need for a national strategy to link in with the radon awareness campaign. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland plays a role from a scientific and educational point of view. It does not have the resources or capacity to allow it to reach every locality. It will be necessary to reach every locality if we are to deal appropriately with this threat to public health. Local authorities could play a very important role in this regard, particularly because they have the resources and manpower necessary at community level to raise awareness and drive advertising campaigns.

An overall national strategy, for which the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, if allocated proper resources, could take ultimate responsibility. The institute has carried out awareness campaigns in certain areas where high levels of radioactive gas were detected. The safety threshold relating to radon gas is 200 bq/m3 for a household or school and 400 bq/m3 for workplaces. I am aware of households in mid-Waterford where readings of thousands of becquerels per metre cubed have been detected. This is a matter of major concern. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of households in the south east have not been tested for the presence of radon. It can cost anything between €40 and €80 per test and if remediation work is required, this can cost anything from €1,500 to €2,000.

Grant aid is not provided to people who need to carry out remediation work such as that to which I refer. In recent years there has been a drive to improve building energy ratings, BERs, in homes and grant assistance in this regard is available through Sustainable Energy Ireland. It is ironic that where energy ratings for houses are improved by the putting in place of, for example, new windows, the level of ventilation and air circulation in such houses can be reduced as a result. The latter can contribute to escalating levels of radon where the gas is a problem. A house which did not have a radon problem prior to its energy rating being improved could well develop such a problem subsequently. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland made proposals to the Government and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in respect of tying radon detection tests with any improvements relating to energy ratings. Such a suggestion is logical and makes common sense.

I call on the Government to put in place a national radon protection strategy in order that this problem, which is a public health issue due to the life-threatening nature of radon, might be addressed. There are simple ways which would not incur a cost for the Exchequer by means of which this problem could be dealt with. I refer, for example, to making it compulsory for certification purposes to carry out radon tests on all new houses.

Every house sold must have a building energy rating, BER, certificate, and there is no reason there cannot be a radon compliance certificate as well. Through this method, every house could be tested in the next ten or 20 years, thereby eliminating a large part of the problem. I am interested in the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Government's approach to radon, which is similar to that of the majority of EU member states, is to concentrate efforts on increasing public awareness of the risks posed by the gas in the home. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, which is the national organisation with regulatory, monitoring and advisory responsibilities in matters pertaining to ionising radiation, which includes radon, offers a radon advisory service as part of its remit, which is partly funded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. In particular the RPII concerns itself with hazards to health associated with ionising radiation and with radioactive contamination in the environment from both natural and artificial sources.

Radon is a known carcinogen and long-term exposure to high radon levels presents a direct risk to human health. The epidemiological evidence tells us that it is also a public health issue. There is now a consensus that an integrated approach, involving building and health professionals, local authorities, the radon measurement industry and communication experts, must be adopted.

Everyone needs to be aware of the risks from radon and the potential health consequences if people 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. The RPII recommends that every householder have homes tested for radon. The RPII, as well as a number of private companies, offers a radon measurement service to householders, with the cost of this service approximately €56. Members of the public can access information on radon on the RPII website, www.rpii.ie, and publications and information leaflets about radon can be downloaded free of charge. The RPII can also be contacted on freefone 1800 300 600.

A joint position statement on radon, Radon Gas in Ireland: Joint Position Statement by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and the Health Service Executive, issued to the Ministers, Deputy Mary Harney and Deputy John Gormley, in April this year. This recommends that the issue should be addressed on a number of fronts by a number of different Departments and agencies working together to put an effective strategy in place.

Reducing radon health effects requires long-term commitment at local, national and global levels. This can best be achieved by concentrating resources through an inter-agency approach and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will continue to work with other key stakeholders in this regard. The Department will continue to work closely with the RPII, the HSE, local authorities and other interested agencies to raise public awareness and promote radon testing and remediation works. A multi-agency approach to dealing with radon is in line with international best practice, as recommended by the World Health Organisation's international radon project which was co-funded by the Irish Government. I hope the information is helpful and I thank the Senator for raising the matter in the House.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for the information and acknowledgement that the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has given a position statement to both the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. There is a need for an effective strategy to deal with the problem.

In Sweden, local authorities have the responsibility of mapping radon levels and a duty to enforce the mandatory reference levels. I am sure such a process could be introduced to Ireland. In Finland, which has high radon levels and is in the same reference level as Ireland, there are specific roles for each level of government, from ministers to the radiological protection agency, local authorities and universities. There is a clear strategy in other European countries that is managed nationally. Is it the Government's intention to implement a similar strategy in this country?

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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This can be considered further by both the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. I will inform them of the Senator's concern about the matter and his proposal.