Adjournment Debate. - Louth Radon Gas Level Survey.

Thank you for the opportunity to raise this issue. The debate about radon gas levels has been concentrated mainly in the western counties of Galway, Mayo and Clare. Although in recent times the Radiological Protection Institute has carried out a nationwide measurement of radon gas levels in every county, in many instances the survey is limited. It is a question of householders being invited to participate and payment of a fee of £15. Even where the survey is limited it provides valuable pointers to the radon gas levels that may exist in particular parts of the country.

In regard to the results for County Louth I have been pursuing the matter by way of parliamentary question and, latterly, by way of correspondence with the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communication, Deputy Cowen. We were surprised and indeed disturbed at some of the indications of the results from County Louth, particularly in the Cooley Peninsula. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland operates on a reference level of about 200 becquerels per cubic metre. In one house in Cooley the level reached 752 becquerels per cubic metre, considerably above the reference level.

The survey in County Louth was very limited. To get a more accurate measurement it would be necessary to undertake a more intensive survey. The environmental research unit of the Department of the Environment provides invaluable information to people who experience a problem in the environs of their house. The cost of the remedial works necessary in some instances must be taken into consideration. Contractors in the west specialise in providing a service to people who find themselves in a dilemma but along the east coast where the problem was previously unknown it will take some time for the building sector to come to terms with the problem. The ductingextraction arrangement seems to be the most popular way of dealing with the problem. As costs are involved, householders would like to be assured before spending money on remedial works that they will provide a solution to their problem. I am not sure if the new building regulations take account of this problem. If not, perhaps the time has come for us to examine them with a view to inserting a more assertive clause to deal with the matter.

In the Cooley area of County Louth the number of deaths from cancer and cancer-related illnesses is high. The close proximity to Sellafield and the most recently identified problem of radon gas levels are a great cause of concern among the people living in the area and I hope the Radiological Protection Institute will carry out a more intensive survey to identify the extent of the problem. I am not sure of the position where the survey has already been effected. It is not simply a matter of deciding to carry out a survey and providing the measurement equipment; it would take some time to carry out such a survey. It is possible to get a variation in the reading from one room to another in a dwelling and that would also have to be taken into consideration. I know the Minister, Deputy Cowen, is particularly interested in this subject and I await with interest his response.

Radon is naturally occurring radioactive gas originating from the natural decay of uranium in rocks and soils. It has no taste, smell or colour. Uranium is found in small quantities in all soils and rocks, although the amount varies from place to place. Radon which surfaces in the open air is quickly diluted to harmless concentrations, but when it enters an enclosed space it can sometimes build up to unacceptable levels. On average about half of our radiation dose comes from radon, and long term exposure to high levels significantly increases a person's risk of contracting lung cancer. There is evidence that the risk associated with exposure to high radon levels is considerably greater for people who smoke.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland — RPII — is the national authority with responsibility for undertaking measurements of the naturally-occurring radioactive gas, radon. The average radon concentration in Irish houses is about 60 becquerels per cubic metre — Bq/m³ — compared with typical outdoor values of about five becquerels per cubic metre. Surveys to date indicate that about 4 per cent of houses in Ireland have radon concentrations above the reference level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre. This is the radon concentration level above which remedial measures should be considered. While houses with high radon levels are found throughout the country, there is evidence of a greater incidence of such houses in the west of Ireland.

In 1992, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland launched a geographically-based national radon survey. This survey, when completed, will assist in the identification of areas of greater risk of high radon levels and allow planning and local authorities to consider what actions might be desirable to limit radon accumulation in new buildings.

As part of this National Radon Survey, 130 householders in County Louth were issued with radon detectors in July 1993. These were left in place for one year and were due to be returned in July 1994. Measurements have now been completed by the institute in 74 houses throughout County Louth, 20 of the houses being in the Cooley Peninsula. Eleven of the 74 houses had radon levels above the reference level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre and eight of these houses were in the Cooley Peninsula. The highest level recorded in the county, 752 becquerels per cubic metre, was in a house in the Cooley Peninsula.

In the part of County Louth outside the Cooley Peninsula, three houses out of 54 — 5.5 per cent — exceeded the reference level, an incidence which does not differ greatly from the national average. However, on the Peninsula, eight houses — 40 per cent — of the 20 tested exceeded the reference level. While it is necessary to be cautious in drawing general conclusions from such a small sample as 20 houses, the clear indication at this early stage is that there is a high incidence of elevated radon levels in the Cooley Peninsula.

Householders for whom results are available have already been informed of their results and, where appropriate, advised that remedial measures should be considered. Remedial action to deal with unacceptable level of radon gas is primarily a matter for the householders and property owners concerned. Where high radon concentrations have been identified, techniques exist which enable levels to be reduced. Responsibility for advice on these matters rests with the Department of the Environment. That Department also provides guidance on appropriate measures to be taken in the design and construction of buildings.

In view of the outcome of this survey and given the concern in the north-east about all aspects of radioactivity and the high degree of environmental awareness among the population, it is strongly recommended that other householders in that area should have radon measurements taken. The national survey is proceeding now to other areas and the institute does not propose to carry out a further survey in the Cooley area at this time. However, for householders not already included in the survey, the institute offers a radon measurement service for homes at a cost of £15 per house. The measurement process involves placing radon detectors in a well used living area and in a bedroom for a period of three months. Each detector is about the size of a matchbox and is completely harmless. The survey will be conducted entirely by post. At the end of the measurement period, the householder will be sent the results of the measurements and a recommendation. Strict confidentiality is assured. Any houseowner or resident in the Cooley area can contact the institute at 3 Clonskeagh Square, Clonskeagh Road, Dublin 14, or by Freephone Radon 1800-300-600.

I note from my discussions with Deputy Kirk that this matter is causing concern. The Department of the Environment has some responsibility in this area and I will take up the matter with the Minister, Deputy Smith. Grant aid is not available for the installation of underground fans which are sometimes used to disperse the radon outside the house. This is a costly exercise, costing between £1,000 and £1,500, and perhaps that Department will consider introducing such a grant. New houses can be radon proofed.