RADON gas is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and Clare has one of the highest rates of radon in the country, with 18% of monitored houses in the county recording high levels of the gas.
On foot of an awareness campaign, the EPA is encouraging householders to check the levels of radon in their homes and take measures to reduce their exposure to the silent killer.
Senior scientist with the EPA and manager of the radon and radiation measurements services, David Fenton, said acceptable levels of radon within the home are anything up to 200 units but, in the last 12 months, a recording 10 times that was found in Ennis.
“In County Clare, the highest level we found was 3,500 units near Lisdoonvarna in a private house in 2010. The radiation dose that people in that house were receiving would be the equivalent of 12 chest x-rays a day. The more we measure, the more high ones we find in Clare. Because of the properties of radon that you can’t smell it, taste it, or see it, people could be unknowingly living with high levels of the gas in their house, especially in Clare. We found a house with a reading of 2,000 in the last 12 months in Ennis and that would be the equivalent of seven to eight x-rays a day,” Mr Fenton revealed.
He explained that the parts of the county that are particularly prone to high instances of radon include Ennis, Clarecastle, Lisdoonvarna and Ballyvaughan.
“Clare, without a doubt, is a priority county for us when it comes to radon. We regularly find high levels of radon in Clare. People need to protect themselves about this thing because radon kills 250 people a year through lung cancer and it is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. It’s a significant serious environmental health issue because it is linked to so many lung cancers. Radon is easy to measure and easy to fix and a problem only if it’s ignored,” he said.
According to the EPA senior scientist, radon accounts for approximately 13% of lung cancers nationally, with at least one person every two days getting lung cancer linked to radon.
He explained that the reason there is a high level of radon in the county is down to geology, particularly the unique geology of the Burren region.
“Ireland has a problem with radon. The average level of radon in Ireland is 77 units; in the UK, it’s 21 and worldwide, it’s 29. As you go up to the North of Ireland, it’s less of a problem because the basalt in the North has less uranium in it than what we have down south, like granite and limestone.
The EPA carried out testing in Clare over a 12-month period up to April 2016 and discovered that 18% of the houses they measured recorded high readings, particularly in Ennis.
“Nationally, Clare would be one of the highest; 18% of houses in Clare are high and that would be about as high as you would get. The radon problem is a natural thing. It’s not going to go away but it is easy for people to protect themselves against it and that’s by testing and if they have high levels, fixing it.”
A new website has been launched providing information about how to test for radon gas and how to minimise exposure to it. The radon.ie site is a one-stop portal for this information and is tailored to different stakeholders, such as members of the public, builders and schools.
On the website, the public can order radon detectors, which are small devices about the size of a biscuit.
“Two are posted to the house. You put one in the bedroom and one in the living room and leave it there for three months and post it back to us and that will tell you what the radon levels are. You get a report and you need to be below 200 units of radon. If you are below that, then you haven’t got a problem but if you are above that, you need to do something,” Mr Fenton said.
There are two common methods of fixing radon for existing properties. These include improving ventilation and installing a sump and in the case of new builds, it involves a sump and a radon barrier.
“If you are moderately high, between 300 to 350, then improving the ventilation in your house will do it. Anything that introduces fresh air into your house from the outside will dilute the concentration of any gas present. Over time vents in a house can get blocked up with foliage or to block out drafts, so it is not a good idea to do that over the long-term. If the levels are very high, above the 400 mark, then the next method is the installation of a sump,” he said.
He outlined that the way radon gets into a house is because typically a house is warmer inside than outside and the heat difference creates a pressure difference, which sucks radon in. A sump interrupts this pressure flow and that’s what stops the radon from getting in.
He said it is a common misconception that it is not possible to retrofit a sump but he said it is a simple process.
“There is never a need for guys to interfere with floor boards or anything like that. It’s a common misconception. The work is done entirely from the outside in a few hours. A small hole is dug out and a pipe is put in and that draws the radon out and if a fan is put in, then that makes it an active sump and the action of the fan de-pressurises the ground under the house, which stops the radon from going into the house,” he said.
For new builds, he said, building regulations now require builders to put in a standby sump and a radon barrier and this is insisted upon for all new school buildings.
“If people are building new houses, they need to make sure that the radon preventative measures that are required under the building regulations are properly installed. Even if you added a radon barrier and sump, you should still test your house for radon. You can go in and check if a light is working or if the water is flowing but you have no way to know if the radon barrier is working unless you do a measurement,” he stressed.
He explained that if someone finds a high level of radon, they should immediately reduce the risk and it is not a necessity to get a medical check.
“Once you reduce your radon levels, you immediately reduce your risk of lung cancer. Exposure to radon is a long-term risk, so you need to minimise your exposure to the carcinogens over your lifetime. Once you’ve moved into the house, carry out a radon test. Generally, it’s a once-off action unless you do something that would materially alter ventilation patterns in the house, like build an extension or put new windows in. It’s like having your boiler serviced. This is something you should be doing not because the EPA in Dublin are telling you you need to, it’s because it needs to be done.”
More information is available from website or by calling the freephone number 1800 300600.
By Carol Byrne