Stephanie Long and Dr Éamann Breatnach examine the problems caused by exposure to high levels of radon radiation and ways to address the issue.
The Irish population is constantly exposed to ionising radiation of both natural and man-made origins. Natural radiation comes from long-lived radionuclides present in the earth’s crust since the formation of the planet and from outer space. For most people, by far the greatest source of exposure is from naturally-occurring radiation.
The largest source of natural radiation is radon gas, which accounts for 56 per cent of the radiation dose received by the Irish population. Radon gas is also the exposure pathway where the greatest reduction is possible. Most other pathways either make a much smaller contribution to the dose or are not amenable to control.
This article compares the radiation dose received by the Irish population from radon with that received from other sources and explains how exposure to radon can be reduced.
A record number of homes throughout the country have been identified as having high levels of radon, including one house in north Kerry which had some of the highest levels of the cancer causing gas ever identified in Europe.
Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas present in all rocks and soils, is classified as a class A carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. When it surfaces in the open air, it is quickly diluted to harmless concentrations. However, when it enters an enclosed space, such as a house, it can sometimes build up to high concentrations, leading to an 'unacceptable health risk'.
After smoking, long-term exposure to radon gas in the home is the greatest single cause of lung cancer in Ireland. The gas is linked to up to 200 cancer deaths here every year.
Driving across the border from Somerset into Devon you pass a sign by the side of the road. "Warning: You are now entering a radioactive area," it says. How would you feel? Would you continue your journey – or would you turn round and head for home?
magine if similar signs popped up on the outskirts of Banbury and Northampton, in the Yorkshire Dales, and in parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Would you be inclined to buy a house in those places? Would you go on holiday there?
Some of Britain's best-loved beauty spots turn out to have the highest concentrations of what has been termed the country's worst environmental pollutant. It is an invisible, odourless gas that seeps out of the ground and causes an estimated 1,100 deaths from lung cancer every year. It is called radon and last month the number of homes designated at risk was increased five-fold (from 100,000 to between 500,000 and 600,000), rendering millions more people officially vulnerable.
Nearly 600 homes across the Republic have been found to have high levels of cancer-causing radon gas so far this year.
This is the highest number identified in any period since the national radon measurement programme began, according to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII).
Radon is the second biggest cause of lung cancer after smoking and is linked to up to 200 lung cancer deaths each year in Ireland.
The rise in the number of homes identified is attributed in part to the fact that more houses have been measured this year than ever before.
A total of 4,296 homes were measured by the RPII for radon gas between January 1st and August 30th. Of these, 597 were above the acceptable level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m3).
Six homes in Lisdoonvarna, Clonmel, Ballymote and Tralee were found to have more than ten times the acceptable level with measurements between 2000 and 3500 Bq/m3.