Seanad debates

Monday, 5 July 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Radon Gas Levels

10:30 am

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Acting Chair, Senator Flynn. It is lovely to see her in the Chair today. I thank the Minister of State for joining us today. I hope he will provide a pathway to dealing with this very serious issue. The absence of the Minister in charge is noted.

I have several questions. What action is the Government taking to deal with the high levels of radon gas which affect more than 500,000 homes? Does the Minister intend to provide assistance towards grants for testing for radon gas? Last week, I spoke about radon, which is a radioactive gas linked to 300 lung cancer cases each year. I spoke about the lethal gas, which is the second largest cause of lung cancer in this country. I spoke about it creating 14% of the lung cancer cases which present in our hospitals each year. I also spoke about the fact that one third of this country is classified as a high radon area by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. What I did not mention last week is the fact that we have particular geology in Ireland which means that this radioactive gas is emitted by igneous rocks. As a result, radon is trapped by our homes at a higher rate than in other countries. There are 500,000 homes at risk here. I was shocked to read in an article in The Irish Timesthat the members of a household in Sligo were exposed to radiation levels equivalent to having 15 chest X-rays every day because of radon gas in the ground beneath their home. This dose is 22 times higher than the level regarded as acceptable and left the people in the property at increased risk of lung cancer. The article to which I refer is a year old. What has been done about the matter?

Radon gas is odourless, colourless and tasteless. It seeps through the soil and enters buildings through small cracks, holes or imperfections that may exist in floor areas or gaps around pipes or cables.There is nothing that a household or an employer can do about it. There is nothing that a family in County Sligo can do about it. However, there is something that the Government can do about it. Radon can be tested in homes with a testing kit that costs €50. If radon is found to be above certain levels, it is recommended that the home undergoes radon remediation works. An employer that finds radon levels in the workplace that are too high is required, under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, to have radon remediation works carried out to control and eliminate the risks. Such works may include the installation of a fan-assisted sump. These sumps can reduce radon levels by up to 90% and cost €1,500. The costs of €50 and €1,500 may sound like a small sum for such important prevention measures but to homeowners, businesses and employers across the nation who are already stretched with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is no small sum. The only solution is Government support.

Lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the Republic. To eliminate 300 radon-induced incidences of lung cancer, this cost is significantly less than €100,000 per case. In the interest of our citizens and taxpayers as human beings, I urge the Government to provide grants to support the cost of preventative measures. Aside from the grant that I am urging the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to consider providing, is he taking any action regarding the risks radon poses to the citizens of Ireland?

In 2014, a joint position statement was issued by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and the HSE on radon gas and its dangers. How many Irish people know of the dangers, understand the risk and know how to protect themselves from the risk? I dare say it is very few. The people have been left in the dark about the unusually high levels of exposure to this deadly gas. There would be shock if more people knew of the risks. It is a gross injustice that no national awareness campaign has been commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

I am raising this matter because the people of Ireland need to be aware of the risk, the danger and the associated cost. The Government needs to the ready to help, inform and act.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I must say that it is an issue about which I am most concerned. We often hear scaremongering when new technologies or particular products are developed that they may pose a health risk. While that always is debatable, in this case, it is not. Radon poses a clear risk to health, as the Senator has mentioned. It is something of which we all need to become more aware. It is there and can be dealt with.

The Government published a national radon control strategy, NRCS, in 2014. It recommended a broad range of measures aimed at reducing the risk from radon to people living in Ireland. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications - and I apologise that the Minister is not available this morning- chairs the NRCS steering group tasked with implementing the strategy. The group brings together key Departments and agencies to deal with the issue.

The first phase of the strategy had tangible outcomes including the provision of extensive information and the inclusion of a question on radon testing in the conveyancing process for house sales. That is most significant and will add to general public awareness, aside from being a practically important measure.

Phase 2 of the strategy was published in 2019, along with a document on knowledge gaps indicating areas that would benefit from further research. Phase 2 of the strategy has 33 actions to be implemented over five years and 20 topics within the strategy are to be addressed over the five years. Supporting households financially is a key priority of the second phase of the strategy. Behavioural research is also ongoing. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, is carrying out significant work in that area. Once that work is done, the Government will give careful consideration to designing an appropriate radon financial support scheme for householders. Another priority of the second phase of the strategy is translating awareness into action. In a point that applies to both the Government and the public, awareness about radon does not always translate into action. It is important that we take action because we know about the risks. While we are always willing to take action as a populace when new perceived health threats emerge, this is a long-standing health threat. We need to more to tackle it as a populace and we need to be more aware of it. We also need to do more in terms of Government supports, which are now being provided as part of the strategy.

There are some other initiatives that are being undertaken to tackle the issue. The EPA has rolled out a pilot project in County Wexford to make digital radon monitors available to library members for up to a month to test their homes for radon. The results of the project will be reviewed. Hopefully, it will lead to more wide-scale availability of tests. A major research study has been undertaken in conjunction with the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, on the use of passive sumps. This technology adapts the standby sump currently installed in all new-build homes. The study has shown encouraging results in field tests carried out in County Wexford. When available, the results of this project will be considered and recommendations will follow. In addition, the radon map has been updated. A significantly enhanced version of the map is on the way.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am not going to give out to him but very little has been done on this issue since 2014. That is the reality. The Government aims to retrofit 5,000 homes. The NUIG study mentioned by the Minister of State, which was carried out by Dr. James McGrath and Dr. Miriam Byrne, found that if the proper ventilation is not installed as part of the retrofitting programme, people could end up being exposed to more than double the levels of radon at home as a result of the retrofitting process that is going to take place. Therefore, it is a very serious issue. The retrofitting of homes may not be the answer. It will not deal with the radon issue. Unless the ventilation and radon issues are addressed, the retrofitting of 5,000 homes by 2030 will not fix the problem.

The only way forward is to roll out the pilot project undertaken in Wexford to make available monitors so that people can check radon levels in their homes and provide grants for sumps if they find that radon levels are over 20%.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising the matter. There is information available and there are things going on. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Minister. Progress on the implementation of the radon strategy is reported to Government regularly. This discussion has been very useful and I have a strong interest in the issue as well. I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the Government. I look forward to further actions that will come from the strategy.