How many employers are aware that legislation already exists for levels of radon in the workplace? How many people move house without a radon survey, yet understand the need to have a survey for drains, woodworm or dry rot?
Some enlightened and concerned people are already responding to the danger. For example, the Government introduced legislation as far back as 1985 for workplaces, ran a measurement programme and has issued guidance leaflets on radon, Some local authorities have been testing their own buildings and where necessary carrying out remedial action. Some surveyors are now starting to recognise radon as one of the factors to be considered during the sale of a building in some areas. Unfortunately a mandatory test is not a requirement in the Home Information Packs (HIPs) and there is a deafening silence from mortgage lenders and some others about the proven radon hazard.
The Government has set guideline maximum levels that radon concentration should be inside buildings. These are referred to as Action Levels, as they are the point at which it is advised (or required, in the case of commercial buildings) that action is taken to lower the concentration. In domestic properties, the current Action Level is 200 Bq/m3 and in commercial properties the current Action Level is 400 Bq/m3. The average background radon concentration outside is 4 bq/m3 and the average radon level inside buildings is 20Bq/m3.
To put these levels into perspective, the estimated annual radiation dose that someone would receive from spending 8 hours per day in a building with 400 Bq/m3 is equivalent to undergoing approximately 225 chest x-rays. Put another way, the damage to the lungs from spending 8 hours in radon levels of 400 Bq/m3 is estimated as equivalent to smoking over 10 cigarettes during the same time period.
Radon gas seeps into enclosed spaces such as houses and other buildings where it collects. It can build up to high concentrations, depending upon the local geology, atmospheric conditions and ventilation in different structures. Radon itself also decays to form short-lived radioactive particles, which remain suspended in air. When such radioactive particles are inhaled into the lungs, they irradiate the lung and increase the risk of developing lung cancer. This risk increases as the level of radon and the duration of exposure increases. High radon levels therefore need to be taken seriously and steps taken to ensure exposure to radon is kept as low as reasonably practicable.
Properties that lie in certain areas of the UK are more likely to contain high levels of radon, due to the underlying geology and varying amounts of uranium present. Many people mistakenly believe that radon is only of real concern in the South West. The latest set of indicative maps published by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) shows that large areas of Northern England, the Midlands, the South Coast and the whole of Wales are also at risk. Areas such as these, where it has been estimated that more than 1% of properties will contain high levels of radon, are classed as radon Affected Areas.
The Council has been advised that claims are sometimes made that certain properties are "free from radon", based on their not being in a designated area. It should be understood that radon is a natural gas and even if the property is in a non-affected area it could still be affected with high levels of radon
Buildings with basements are also more susceptible to high levels of radon accumulating, as there is a larger surface area in contact with the soil through which the gas can permeate. The HPA recently advised that any property with a basement, regardless of whether it is located in an Affected Area or not, will have an increased probability of containing high radon concentrations.
Unfortunately, the task is complicated by conflicting advice and recommendations ranging from geographic and geologic searches, to the withholding of sums of money (the so-called radon bond) if the property is in a designated part of the country. All of these involve unnecessary expense and risk blighting areas of the country needlessly. None can give reassurance other than a statistical probability. Isolated high levels of radon can crop up in the most unlikely places and conversely, low levels can be measured in property in supposedly high-risk areas.
Official advice has consistently been that only a long-term test of three months or more will be sufficiently accurate. Whilst it may be true that the longer the test the better in order to even out seasonal variations, it ignores the fact that shorter tests exist and if conducted correctly are able to provide a quick screening of a building. A prospective Purchaser is not normally concerned with the precise radon levels within a building, but wishes to know if the biggest purchase being made in their lifetime is likely to be injurious to the family!
If you live in parts of the UK called "Affected Areas", or even if you don't, the two essentials are, firstly don't panic and secondly consider having a measurement of radon levels in a main living room or bedroom as a minimum. As mentioned later this may be particularly important if you are about to sell your property. Equally important is to demand that your conveyancing-solicitor obtains radon information about a property anywhere in the UK that you intend to buy.
It is also the only way to start reducing the unnecessary annual deaths from radon gas in properties both old and new.