Seanad debates

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Commencement Matters

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Campaign

2:30 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The next item is Senator Swanick's. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, is dealing with that and I welcome him. I note it is one Roscommon man engaging with another. Ar aghaidh libh, a Rosaithe.

Photo of Keith SwanickKeith Swanick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome the Minister.

In this morning's headlines, there is an unfortunate and heart-breaking story of an elderly man in County Armagh who has passed away as a result of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. This devastation has been made all the more tragic by the fact that this was another utterly preventable death.

At the end of September, during carbon monoxide awareness week, I raised the issue of local authorities' obligation to play a role in this silent killer. In Ireland, six people on average die unnecessarily from carbon monoxide poisoning each year. A 2015 study found that 1.2 million are currently living in houses without carbon monoxide alarms, including 100,000 people over the age of 65 who live alone. Furthermore, almost half of these people do not even know where to purchase a carbon monoxide alarm.

After I raised this matter here in the Seanad, I wrote to the chief executive of each county and city council asking them to provide, in tabular form, the number of local authority houses they have and the number of those the boilers of which they have serviced in 2014 and 2015. The responses varied greatly. Some local authorities did not reply at all, some simply provided the figures of the number of boilers they serviced and others stated that it was not their responsibility. As the largest landlord in the State, I strongly believe clarification is needed in regard to local authority housing and I would ask the Minister, Deputy Naughten, whether he is in agreement with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, that there is no requirement to carry out an annual service on home heating boilers.

Today, I also want to highlight radon, a radioactive colourless odourless tasteless gas occurring naturally as a decay product of radium. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and it is responsible for up to 250 lung cancer cases in Ireland every year. My party colleague, Councillor David Costello of Dublin City Council, brought this serious concern to my attention, and while almost every household in Ireland is familiar with carbon monoxide and its effects, not too many are familiar with or respect the harmfulness of radon gas.Last week, the EPA reported radon levels 24 times the accepted level in a house in County Wicklow. That is the equivalent of 17 chest X-rays every day. Currently, the agency provides a testing service for radon gas in the home, which costs €50, a not insignificant cost for low-income families given the financial constraints of the past decade. However, the real cost kicks in when a house is determined to have high levels of radon following testing. If it is found to have a high level for radon, which is a cancer-causing gas, the EPA will advise the carrying out of remediation works, which can cost between €500 and €12,000 and can achieve a reduction of up to 98%, depending on how much is spent. There is no grant available to alleviate the cost of remediation. The Government is ignoring the International Atomic Energy Agency report by not providing remediation grants.

The home renovation incentive scheme allows homeowners and landlords to qualify for tax credits equal to 13.5% of the cost of renovation, repair or improvement works. The scheme covers work needed to reduce radon levels in the home but the household needs to spend at least €5,000 to qualify for the scheme, which rules out most remediation works below this threshold. The over-65s may be eligible for a grant to have the work carried out under the housing aid for older people scheme but this is at the discretion of individual local authorities. There is no consistency and there is no rhyme or reason to provision. Some of the most vulnerable members of society are eligible for funds to carry out remedial works while others are not.

We need to address these silent killers, ensure compliance with boiler servicing to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and demand a remediation incentive for dealing with radon gas with consistency in its allocation.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I thank Senator Swanick for the opportunity to address this issue.

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas which is produced when fossil fuels such as coal, wood, petrol, oil or gas do not have enough oxygen to burn completely. Unlike radon gas, carbon monoxide is produced when fuels are burned and can be produced in homes with poor ventilation, blocked chimneys or damaged appliances. It was brought home to us by the tragedy on the Mayo-Sligo border a number of years ago. Raising public awareness of this domestic threat is a key element in dealing with the issue and my Department, together with a range of industry partners led by Gas Networks Ireland, has initiated a range of public awareness campaigns over the past several years. These are centred on an annual carbon monoxide awareness week, which I was happy to launch on 28 September this year. The campaign is vital to inform and educate all of us in order that we can make changes in our everyday lives and minimise risk before it is too late. The impact and effect of carbon monoxide awareness week in previous years has shown that people take more notice when there is a sustained campaign of broad scope. Home ownership of carbon monoxide alarms increased from 25% in July 2014 to 53% in October 2016. My Department and the regulator are sponsors, as are members of the energy industry, which do great work in getting safety information out to their customers. The National Standards Authority of Ireland, alarm manufacturers and suppliers, together with registered gas installers and oil technicians, are all involved as well. The awareness campaign takes place at the end of September when most of us are increasing fuel use and this is supported with a dedicated website,, which provides safety precautions advice on appliances and contact details.

The Senator commented on local authorities carrying out annual services on boilers and I am happy to engage further with him on the survey he has completed and the response he received from local authorities. Taking off my energy hat and putting on my climate change hat, it is important that all boilers are serviced on an annual basis because that improves their efficiency, reduces the fuel burned and, as a consequence, reduces the bill for consumers. We should make sure that the boilers of people living in low-income households and in local authority housing are operating as efficiently as possible.

Radon is a lung carcinogen and is linked to five cancer diagnoses per week.It is a serious public health hazard. It can only be measured with special detectors and produces radioactive particles when inhaled. These particles are deposited on the airwaves and result in a radiation dose on a person's lungs. It is the second biggest causer of lung cancer after smoking and is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

We have a national radon control strategy that is targeting the improvement in standards in building regulations, which have been revised since 1998 and which have had a direct impact on improving the standards of homes across the country. Some of the key measures set out in the national radon control strategy are: the installation of passive preventative measures in new buildings; the use of property transactions - sales and rentals - to drive action on radon; raising radon awareness and encouraging individual action on radon; provision of advice and guidance for individual householders and employers in high radon areas; promoting confidence in radon services; and addressing radon in workplaces and public buildings. This is a matter of which I am very conscious, particularly in the context of places such as Ballintober, County Roscommon, and Fohanagh-Ahascragh in east Galway that have been listed as "red" by the Environmental Protection Agency, which means there is potential for high radon gas levels. The Senator's part of the country, Ballina, is a hot spot for radon gas. We need to raise awareness, particularly in those communities, and we need to do more to encourage people to test for radon gas and put supports in place to carry out remedial action.

To date, of the homes that have been tested, 700 have shown raised radon levels and 80 of those have extremely high radon levels. Based on the national radon survey, it is estimated that approximately 110,000 homes across Ireland have radon concentrations above Ireland's threshold limit of 200 Bq/m3. That means we have identified less than 1% of the total number of households. There is a European radon awareness day and a website, We use the conveyancing mechanism of the legal profession to try to identify radon when properties are being transferred. We are now working with the Department of Education and Skills to determine what actions can be taken under the scheme to support schools on the maintenance and remedial systems that can be put in place. The EPA has also engaged bilaterally with Tusla on how best to increase awareness and promote action amongst relevant agencies and crèche owners. Next year there will be a roll-out of a campaign with Tusla inspectors and voluntary organisations. There has been a programme of radon testing, particularly with older people. The Senator touched on the housing aid for older people scheme, which can be used for that. There is also the home renovation incentive scheme which is of benefit to some families. We are actively looking at other incentives to facilitate and encourage radon testing. There are proposals before me at the moment to consider the introduction of financial incentives. If the Senator or the industry have any thoughts or suggestions on this matter, I would be very happy to hear from them.

Photo of Keith SwanickKeith Swanick (Fianna Fail)
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I look forward to working with the Minister, initially on the carbon monoxide situation. The State is the largest landlord in the country. There is a lack of consistency across counties so we need some uniformity. With regard to the radon situation, I implore the Minister to take on board some of the recommendations from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which advised that a remediation grant should be made available. The house renovation incentive scheme kicks in at €5,000 so perhaps a lesser sum might be acceptable.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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The home renovation incentive scheme kicks in lower than €5,000. The maximum is €5,000 but there are grants below that figure. It is available for home owners. The big problem we have relates to raising awareness of radon.The Senator is right and we must put a remediation programme in place. There is not much point in telling people they have a problem unless we can assist them with it.

I am quite prepared to consider how we should put a structure in place. As the Senator knows, we have limited finance available and perhaps we could start with a pilot scheme to see the scale of the problem. We have done that successfully within the energy division in my Department through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland with other programmes. We have some very good models. I am quite happy to engage with Senator Swanick and see how we can progress both of the issues.