25 September 2008 Edition
Radon gas - What you don't know CAN hurt you
BY ELLA O’DWYER
RADON is a radioactive gas that originates from the decay of uranium in rocks so some counties produce more of the gas than others, depending on geological factors. Radon has no colour, taste or smell so your senses are blind to it and you don’t know if it’s there until you measure it. This gas causes lung cancer and has been linked to about 200 lung cancer deaths each year.
It was while attending a conference on radon in Kerry in 2006 that Mallow Sinn Féin Councillor Willie O’Regan discovered that North Cork had one of the highest radon levels in the country. Alarmed at this discovery and particularly at the fact that Mallow rated extremely high on the list of affected areas, he contacted the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII). An outcome of that contact was that two public meetings were held by the RPII in Mallow to help create awareness around the issue.
The next step for O’Regan was to put a motion to Mallow Town Council calling for testing to be done in all the local authority houses in its jurisdiction. Cork County Council provided funding for free radon test kits for 189 houses in north Cork. The results, which emerged last month, revealed 26 houses showed radon levels in excess of 800; levels should be below 200.
O’Regan insisted that Mallow in particular be tested.
“I called on the council to have council houses in Mallow tested for radon and the results showed that out of 800 houses eight had extremely high levels and other houses had high levels and Mallow in fact has one of the highest radon levels in Ireland.
“One of the reasons for calling for the testing was to ensure that the council wouldn’t be housing people in contaminated houses. I also got the town council to come on board to mount an awareness campaign around the problem of radon and to highlight the fact that north Cork was so badly affected.
“I asked Cork County Council to fund the testing and then I called on the county council to fund any remedial work that might need to be done in terms of improving ventilation or building what are called ‘radon sumps’ to eliminate the gas from the houses.”
They agreed to that and this should set a precedent for other county councils to do likewise.
“The council must fund the remedial work given that they are the sole owners of the council houses. I’ve also called on employers to have workplaces tested and I want workers screened for any effects from radon by having medical tests conducted by GPs.”
The Sinn Féin councillor added that it is also imperative that anyone having a house built or purchasing a premises should ensure that a sump is in place and they should also have the building tested before moving in.
“Prevention is always better than a cure and the insertion of sumps could prevent the loss of life. Though smoking is the main cause of lung cancer in Ireland with 1,500 dying from the disease per year, radon has been connected with 200 deaths by lung cancer in the country.”
David Fenton of Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland told An Phoblacht: “Radon was first discovered in the 16th century in a coalmine in Germany. The owner of the mine realised that a lot of his workers were getting very ill and that a gas in his mine was causing his workers to become ill.
“Then, in the 20th century, people knew about radon and lung cancer. It was known that radon was a problem underground in mines or the like but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that it was discovered to exist in houses.
“A guy turned up for work at a nuclear power station in Pennsylvania one day and the security alarm went off as he was going into the power station which made people realise that there was a radon problem outside the power station and they traced the problem to his house. That made people realise that something needed to be done.”
The danger level for radon in a house is set at 200 units per cubic meter of air, an estimate that is based on international evaluations. A national survey was conducted in Ireland enabling the RPII to map out the levels of radon in different parts of the country. The national average level of radon in Ireland is 89 units per square meter of air, whereas in Britain the level is 20, showing that we have a problem here in this country.
Fenton said that it’s geology in that certain types of rocks like basalt produce more Radon.
David Fenton substantiated Councillor O’Regan’s claim that north Cork has been identified as having one of the highest levels with one working premises recording 62 times the normal level of radon.
Fenton works in the area of advice and awareness for the RPII.
“Awareness is crucial in this whole issue because there are effective ways of dealing with the problem.
“Firstly, the levels need to be measured in houses and workplaces. You get two small detectors less than the size of a computer mouse and put one in the living room and one in bedroom. You leave them there for three months after which you send the detectors back to us for testing.
“Improved ventilation will help alleviate the problem but if there is seen to be a serious problem you get what’s called a radon sump inserted into a cavity in the ground outside the house. This allows a pipe to be inserted with a fan which draws out the radon which would otherwise go into the house.”
The costs are €54 for a test and in the region of €2,000 should a radon sump be required. It’s money well spent in Councillor O’Regan’s view and, given the precedent set in Mallow, council houses should be serviced free of charge.
Anyone interested in having the radon test carried out in their homes or place of work should contact the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland at 01 269 7766 or e-mail [email protected]