Radon is a noble gas which has been classified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is the second largest cause of lung cancer, being a factor in 1,100 deaths annually nationwide. It is odourless, tasteless and colourless making it impossible for those without specialised equipment to detect it. Radon is naturally occurring and accounts for 50% of total radioactive exposure. This high level of exposure usually unproblematic as Radon is not considered dangerous in the small concentrations found outdoors and in the majority of buildings. However, some buildings contain radon in dangerously high concentrations.
Concerns about dangerously high radon levels in property is justified, and the conveyancing process usually involves searches that discuss the local radon levels/risk. A high risk of radon contamination should be apparent after replies to enquiries are received from the local authority or upon receiving an environmental report (if this report is requested). These identify areas which are likely to have high levels of radon exposure. There are also online services which can be utilised to check for radon risk levels. Even in areas that are high-risk with regard to radon, the majority of buildings will contain radon at levels considered acceptable. However, in high-risk areas a radon test can be performed. The standard tests take approximately 3 months and costs approximately £50 per test. There are also quicker 10 day tests available but these are less accurate.
The importance of detecting radon is demonstrated by the Watras incident. Mr Watras, an employee at a nuclear power plant in the USA, triggered the radiation monitors at his workplace. After an investigation it was found that the radiation was coming from his house in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Radon levels of 100,000 Bq/m3 were detected. The target level of radiation, according to Public Health England, is at or below 100 Bq/m3, although this level still carries a degree of risk, particularly if the occupant is a smoker. The average radon level in UK households is 20 Bq/m3. This meant that Mr Watras’ house was 1000 times more radioactive than was safe and 5000 times more radioactive than the UK average. The health impact of this exposure was considered to be the same as if the if the family members had each smoked thousands of cigarettes daily. As a result, Mr Watras had to move out of his house while the issue was resolved. After installing a radon reduction system, the level of radon in Mr Watras’ house was reduced to within safe levels.
As this incident demonstrates, once radon is detected in a property it is entirely possible to implement counter measures to mitigate the risk posed to health. There are two main methods of reducing radon contamination: a radon sump and ventilation. A radon sump is usually the most effective way of reducing radon but also the costliest. This system involves a void being created beneath the building which draws gas towards it which is then vented away.
Radon sumps are most effective if they are “active”, meaning that they have a fan to extract the gas. The other option to mitigate the effects of radon is ventilation. This can be done by means of a ventilation system to pump filtered air through the property. This system is one of the least intrusive but may not be suitable if the property is draughty. It is also possible to ventilate using underfloor spaces if available. This can be done by naturally improving the airflow through this space or, if necessary, by a fan.
When a property with an unknown radon level is sold it may be appropriate to create a Radon Bond. A Radon Bond is an amount of money held by a third party, usually a solicitor, which can be used by the buyer to remedy dangerous radon levels. If radon is not detected at an unsafe concentration this money is released to the seller. Any money not spent on testing or remedial work will also be returned to the seller. According to the UK Radon Association an amount of £2,500 held for a period of 4 months from the completion date, with an extension of 3 months if radon is detected, is realistic.
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