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Opinion: Radon kills thousands in Ireland but the gas is completely preventable

EcoEye producer Marcus Stewart explains how some straightforward policy moves can bring deaths from the radioactive gas under control.

EVERY YEAR IN Ireland, around 300 people die from lung cancer caused by a radioactive gas known as radon. That’s 3,000 lives lost every decade.

We have a particular geology in Ireland that emits this radioactive gas from igneous rocks that is trapped by our homes at a higher rate than most countries. 

EPA and GSI mapping shows that nearly half a million people are at risk of having high levels of radon in their homes.

  • Read more here on how to support a Noteworthy project to investigate if the State is doing enough to protect families from the cancer-causing dangerous gas, radon.

Luckily, we know how to easily prevent this gas from entering our homes. A simple €50 test can determine if you have radon in your home and, if you do, a sump can be cheaply installed that constantly sucks the gas out of the subfloor so that it never enters your home.

Unfortunately, however, many of us are still not taking the simple steps to combat the problem and potentially save the lives of the people we love – but why?

Hidden to the eye

Detecting which homes have high levels can also be very difficult as it requires occupants to register to get a test and there are a myriad of psychological reasons why we choose not to bother.

Part of the problem is that radon is a naturally occurring gas that is invisible to the human eye.

While we are conditioned to fear complex technologies and substances that we don’t understand like modern nuclear power, we often ignore real world dangers that are invisible to the human eye, such as radon gas exposure. 

Because radon is an invisible problem, however, most people don’t bother to get a test even when those tests are offered for free in very high-risk areas.

Practical solutions for the ‘right fix’

Having made more than one TV documentary looking at this subject over many years, I have come to the conclusion we’re not deploying the right policies to fix this.

We need to employ the same reasoning that we did when we made seat belts mandatory. We need to make radon tests mandatory for all buildings showing medium to high levels of risk on radon mapping.

We also need much bigger subsidies for rehabilitation works. The fear of having to pay €1,000 or more for a radon sump can lead some people to put off getting a test.

The cost to our health system of treating lung cancer from radon is many times more than offering free sumps to high radon homes and the human impact is incalculable. 

We have already made energy ratings mandatory for all buildings advertised for sale or rent in line with the need to hit our mandatory EU emissions targets.

We can absolutely do the same with radon. While there are no EU targets for saving lives from radon, bringing in something akin to the workplace-smoking ban can work if there is the political will to do so.

Will we act to prevent another 3,000 deaths this decade or kick the can down the road and let more die from a gas that is easily controlled with the right measures?

As we’re doing very hard things to save lives now during the pandemic, I hope our political system can now do the right, and easy thing, and bring in measures to ensure the end of radon deaths in Ireland for good. 

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Marcus Stewart is a TV and Film documentary producer with Earth Horizon Productions and produces the EcoEye environmental series on RTE.

Marcus wanted to dedicate this article to the EPA’s “brilliant” Dr Ciara McMahon who sadly passed away recently

“I learned much of what I know about radon and radiation exposure from Ciara and her team at the EPA. May her science based reasoning and efforts to save lives be remembered. Rest in peace Ciara. I hope we can honour your work and dedication by finally fixing this problem.”

RADON AWARE Proposal

Is the State doing enough to protect families from this cancer-causing dangerous gas?

The Noteworthy team wants to examine if enough resources are available to tackle the silent killer and find out if authorities have given any consideration to providing financial support for radon remediation works.

More details on how you can support this work here.

About the author:

Marcus Stewart  / EcoEye Producer

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