In 2013, the European Commission appointed the Scientific and Technical Committee to research the dangers of ionizing radiation such as radon decay. The European Commission, with the information from the Committee, created a set of uniform standards to deal with the issue of ionizing radiation. This forms the base of the EURATOM Basic Safety Standards (BSS) Directive and will be applied to all European Union (EU) Member States. The changes will take place in less than a year as all Member States will have to comply with the Basic Safety Standards Directive by the 6th of February 2018 (following Article 106).
The purpose of this post is to simplify how this 2013 BSS Directive will affect Europeans safety. More specifically, it will give an overview of what this means for the general public with regards to the specific changes concerning radon.
(The Directive for radon is also summarized in an infographic that can be downloaded here.)
What is Radon?
Radon is a colorless and odorless gas making it difficult to detect without a device. More specifically, it is radioactive as it stems from the decay of uranium which naturally occurs in the Earth’s crust. The problem is that traces of uranium exist in the soil beneath our homes, schools, and workplaces. This means that we are exposed to radon in the places we spend most of our time increasing health risks as a result of cumulative radon exposure. Another important problem is that radon fluctuates daily making constant measurement necessary to determine accurate radon levels.
We know that when radon and its decay products enter our airways, the particles will then attach themselves to our cell lining. As radon and its radioactive products decay in our lungs, alpha particles are emitted thereby damaging our cells’ DNA. Hence, it is widely recognized that radon exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. For instance, according to the WHO, radon exposure contributes to as much as 14% of all lung cancer cases in some countries.
What does the Directive mean in practice?
The overall goal of the Directive, in terms of radon exposure, is to protect the public and ensure that indoor radon concentrations are below 300 Bq/m3. In short, there is going to be a need for continuous radon measurement in dwellings, public spaces, and workplaces to minimize long-term health risks and create a reference point for risk assessment. Hence, this Basic Safety Standards Directive will directly affect homeowners, the general public, all employees, and employers.
The action plan suggests monitoring radon concentration in dwellings. In short, there is a need to measure homes and residential areas for radon levels. However, it might also be relevant in cases of extreme radon levels as homeowners may receive financial aid for radon mitigation services (depending on the national action plan). Furthermore, this Directive could potentially mean that landlords need to properly assess the place for radon exposure to ensure the health and safety of the tenants. However, this is not explicitly stated and will be up to each individual Member State to determine.
The Basic Safety Standards Directive also affects the general public as it calls for monitoring the radon concentration of buildings with public access. This means that buildings such as libraries, gyms, shopping malls, and hospitals should be measured for radon levels. Moreover, measuring radon makes the problem visible thereby creating opportunities for the public to demand that local decision makers prioritize the health and safety of everyone. Furthermore, we need to understand the cumulative effect of radon on the population which makes it important to measure public spaces.
Employers and employees
As radon levels in the workplace are directly addressed in Article 54 and further mentioned in Article 103, employers are particularly influenced by this Directive. Since the levels should be below the national standard in compliance with the law, employers must make sure that they establish good strategies for measurement and mitigation of radon levels. In short, this will affect organizations such as schools, kindergartens, hospitals, offices, and restaurants. Furthermore, employees must make sure that employers take these measures seriously and report any inconsistencies with the compliance of the law to ensure that the health and safety of workers are taken seriously.
More details on the Basic Safety Standards Directive concerning radon
Radon is directly addressed in the Basic Safety Standards Directive through Article 54 concerning workplace radon levels, Article 74 concerning indoor radon levels, and Article 103 for the national action plan.
Radon concerns: workplace, indoor levels, and action plan
For instance, under Article 54 it addresses radon levels in workplaces. This Article capped the indoor radon concentration level for workplaces at 300 Bq/m3. However, Member States are encouraged to set more stringent laws according to point 5 of the Directive. Furthermore, this Directive requires that radon measures are carried out especially in workplaces that are located on ground floor or basement levels as these are especially at risk. Lastly, the Article emphasizes the importance of notifying cases where the radon concentration at the workplace continues to exceed the set national reference level.
Article 74 addresses indoor exposure to radon. This requires the Member States to establish national reference levels for radon that does not exceed 300 Bq/m3. Furthermore, it requires all Member States to create solutions to identify homes with radon concentration above the national reference level. Lastly, it wants to ensure the availability of information on the health risks associated with radon exposure both on the local and national level.
Article 103 requires the establishment of a national action plan to address long-term risks of radon exposure in homes, public spaces, and workplaces. For instance, it begins by stating that all “Member States shall establish a national action plan addressing long-term risks from radon exposures in dwellings, buildings with public access and workplaces for any source of radon ingress (…)”. Secondly, Member States should ensure that appropriate measures are in place to prevent radon seeping into the building. Lastly, the Article wishes to identify areas where concentrations are expected to exceed national reference level.
The national action plan to address long-term health risks
Since the European Commission recognizes that there is an increased risk of lung cancer from long-term exposure to indoor radon levels over the order 100 Bq/m3, a national action plan is required. This action plan is necessary to address the long-term health risks from radon exposure as stated in point 23 of the Directive.
Firstly, this plan requires the Member States to ensure good building practices to prevent radon from entering into buildings. In other words, the members may need to implement national building codes with a specific set of expectations to ensure the well-being of the general public. This is to ensure that future building projects will provide good insulation against radon from seeping in. Moreover, it is advised to consider steps to deal with the remedial action of radon post construction.
Secondly, the plan requires the Member States to identify specific areas where radon concentration is expected to exceed appropriate national reference levels. Furthermore, the plan suggests surveying indoor radon concentration to estimate the distribution of radon levels. This means that radon measurement instruments are needed in order to be able to map and risk assessing these areas. In short, this means that there is a need to measure homes, public spaces and workplaces to create a reference level of radon exposure to assess the current risks and address them accordingly.
Thirdly, the action plan should also consider the dealing with radon mitigation once measurement and risk assessment has been completed. It suggests that the Member States should create guidance for methods for measurement and mitigation of radon.
Furthermore, they could also consider the provision of financial support for these activities which is particularly important for homes with high radon concentrations.
Lastly, the plan aims to increase public awareness of the risk of radon, methods and tools for measurements, and remedial measures. For instance, it is recommended that the Member States should create a strategy for communicating the risks of radon (including in relation to smoking) to “increase public awareness and inform local decision makers, employers, and employees”.
Conclusion: importance of radon measurement devices
As seen from the new Basic Safety Standards Directive, radon will continue to be an important topic in health and safety, building management and employer responsibility moving forward. Hence, it becomes extremely important to measure radon levels. This is because it is the first step to address the problem with radon exposure by making the invisible gas visible. In short, by using devices such as Airthings Wave, stakeholders are able to identify the problem areas that need radon mitigation and have clear, detailed short-term and long-term data that is easy to understand. Radon measurement instruments will continue to play an important part of helping the European Commission to accomplish its objectives of addressing the health risks of long-term radon exposure, which benefits both children and adults alike.
Summary: infographic of the EURATOM Basic Safety Standards Directive