Radon testing at Highland Council properties

The Highland Council has updated school head teachers, staff, parents and local Highland Council members on the outcomes of radon monitoring in three of its schools. The following briefing was issued on 29 June 2015.  

As reported in the briefing dated 23/04/2015, three facilities had been identified as having radon present in excess of the 400 Bq/m³ Action Level, arising from the further programme of testing applying to 39 properties deemed at that time to have a lower probability of Radon being present.  The properties affected are Ardgour Primary School, Carrbridge Primary School and Newtonmore Primary School.

The Council will continue to provide updates in relation to its programme of Radon testing, and mitigating works, across its facilities, as updated reports and monitoring information is available.

The Highland Council and their specialist radon advisor, working in consultation with Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and each property Responsible Premises Officer, have examined the results of the previously reported testing and the construction detail of the property and have determined the most appropriate remedial measures to take as follows:

  • Ardgour Primary - Sealing of cracks and voids, installation of 3 Active radon sumps and further 90 day monitoring.
  • Carrbridge Primary - Sealing of cracks and voids, installation of 2 Active radon sumps and further 90 day monitoring.
  • Newtonmore Primary - Sealing of cracks and voids and further 90 day monitoring.

Remedial works to properties will be arranged by the Council’s Development & Infrastructure Service and any management actions required within the property will be arranged by the property Responsible Premises Officers. These works are being programmed to be carried out during the summer holidays so as to minimise any impact on service delivery. Further 90 day monitoring will commence upon completion of the remediation works.

This is a similar approach to that which has been very successfully applied to Council properties elsewhere where radon was detected above the action level. In the majority of locations the subsequent mitigation actions/works have led to substantial reductions in radon levels and in most cases subsequent radon levels were found to be under the action level upon long-term retesting.

Anyone with queries about radon, or the health effects associated with radon can contact Public Health England on 01235 822 622 during normal office hours, or visit their website.

Radon – frequently asked questions

1. What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. It is produced by the decay of uranium that is present in all rocks and soils. In open air, it disperses very quickly, but can accumulate to high levels in buildings. The amount in the indoor air depends on the local geology and the building design, heating, ventilation and use. Radon is present in all buildings, including homes, so we all breathe it in throughout our lives. For most UK residents, radon accounts for about half of their total annual radiation dose. The average level in UK homes is 20 Becquerels per cubic metre of indoor air (Bq/m3).

2. What are the health effects of radon?

Radon is present in all air. Everyone breathes radon in every day, usually at very low levels. However, exposure to high levels of radon increases the risk of developing lung cancer. There is no evidence that exposure to radon increases the risk of other cancers and exposure to radon does not cause short term health effects such as shortness of breath, coughing, headaches or fever, or long term chest conditions such as asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive lung disease.

Significant long term exposure to high levels of radon can increase the risk of lung cancer. Of the 33,000 deaths from lung cancer every year in the UK, between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths are related to radon; however the majority of these are in smokers and ex-smokers. The risk of lung cancer is highest for people who smoke tobacco and have high radon exposures. If you smoke tobacco, quitting is the most effective way of reducing the risk of lung cancer. The risk of lung cancer from exposure to radon in lifetime non-smokers is small and many times lower than the risk of lung cancer if you smoke tobacco.

3. What is the definition of ‘significant long-term exposure’ to radon?

Everyone is exposed to radon throughout their lifetime – it is unavoidable (exposure is the combination of the radon level and the duration).  With radon we think of exposure duration in terms of many years, usually decades.  Hence the action levels are set at radon concentrations where measures are justified to control radon exposure and reduce the risk of adverse health effects, assuming that people would be exposed to it over the long term. 

4. What are radon ‘Action’ Levels’?

Radiation protection standards in workplaces are set by the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999, which apply if radon levels are above 400 Bq/m3. If levels exceed this concentration, action should be taken to reduce radiation exposure to staff and other occupants.  Usually this is done by lowering the radon level. There is no way to eliminate all radon from the world. However, by putting in place some minor building work the levels can be reduced below the action level so that the risk becomes very small.

5. Are children more at risk from radon than adults?

There is no evidence that radon exposure during childhood causes a greater risk than that during adulthood. Action Levels for radon in homes, and also for workplaces (including schools), take into account that exposure could take place over many years. The action levels are set accordingly.

6. How do you know where to test for radon?

The UK's primary experts on radiation protection, Public Health England (PHE) publish radon maps for the UK. These identify areas with a higher probability of radon concentration exceeding the radon action level.  The maps for Scotland are available here http://www.ukradon.org/information/ukmaps

7. Why were schools monitored for radon?

As the Highlands were identified as having radon-affected areas the Council, like other employers, is required to monitor its premises for radon and act accordingly if levels are found to be above the action level. The Council has developed a monitoring programme. Radon tests were carried out at 13 schools over the required three month period in 2013. The results have been analysed and, in the case of five schools, have prompted the need for remedial measures to be put in place at the schools.

8. How was the radon level measured?

Radon levels can vary between adjacent buildings and even in a room, radon levels can vary from day to day and hour to hour. Because of these fluctuations, radon levels are normally measured over a three month period with the use of small plastic detectors.

9. My children have attended this school with high radon for many years – what are the risks?

The increased risk to pupils, caused by exposure to radon at school, is very low. It is especially important that older pupils do not smoke since this is harmful to health in itself and increases the risks from radon exposure.

10. I have worked in the school for many years, am I at risk of getting lung cancer?

The risk of staff members developing lung cancer from radon exposure during the time they have worked at school is very small. The risk is higher in those who also smoke, so for smokers the most effective way of reducing the risk further is by stopping smoking. The remedial work which will be carried out will limit exposure to radon in the future for staff members working in the school.

11. What about the rest of the community?

All employers and landlords are obliged to check if their properties are at risk. A first step is to check radon maps available at the website http://www.ukradon.org/. They may also need to carry out testing which can be simply arranged through the same website at minimal cost (around £25 for a radon detector).

Householders are encouraged to check the maps available at the website http://www.ukradon.org/. The http://www.ukradon.org/ website also offers a detailed map check on individual properties for around £4. If the house is in an area at risk from radon then monitoring should be carried out. This can be simply arranged through the same website at minimal cost (around £50 for a radon test pack).

12. When will the next update be issued?

An update will be issued to all schools once further monitoring results are received.

13. Who can I contact at the Council to discuss issues with schools?

Please contact Highland Council’s Environmental Health team on 01349 886603, or email env.health@highland.gov.uk

14.  Who can I contact if I want further information on radon or to discuss risks?

Public Health England can be contacted directly if you wish to discuss any of the items further. Public Health England can be contacted on 01235 822622, or email through the website http://www.ukradon.org/contactform

General information about radon and health risks can be found at http://www.ukradon.org/

1 Jul 2015
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