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Why does radon in office buildings matter?

Marie Bannister

Marie Bannister

January 1, 2022

The public health spotlight is increasingly focusing on radon, a radioactive gas that gets into buildings and in high quantities over long periods of time, can cause lung cancer.  

For office building owners, facility manager, and office managers, it’s an important issue, not just because of the wellbeing of building users, but also because regulators are becoming more aware of the implications of excess radon in the workplace. In this article, we’ll examine what radon is and explain the health risks that it carries. We’ll also look at the radon regulations as they stand, and why we think they should be developed further.

Discover how you can monitor levels of the gas and deal with it, to ensure your buildings are safe and meet all radon regulations.  

What is radon?

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive gas that is emitted naturally when uranium breaks down in the rock and soil beneath our feet. It’s found everywhere, but there are high concentrations in areas where the earth is made up of certain types of rock, like granite.[1]

In the open air, the gas causes few problems, but it can seep into buildings through cracks in the foundations and build up to dangerous levels.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 7.1 million homes are affected by potentially unsafe levels of radon,[2] while, in the UK, Public Health England says that, in workplaces such as offices, “radon can be the largest occupational health risk.”[3] 

Why does radon in office buildings matter? 

Keeping people healthy and well

When radon builds up indoors, radioactive particles become trapped in our airways as we breathe.[4] Just like damage caused by smoking, exposure to the gas increases the chances that we will get lung cancer.

Radon is the biggest cause of lung cancer for non-smokers, accounting, in the US alone, for an average of 21,000 deaths each year.[5] In Europe, the figure is 20,000 deaths per year.[6]

The risk of acquiring lung cancer from radon radiation is linked directly to our levels of exposure to the gas and the length of that exposure. The higher the dose and the longer the exposure, the greater the risk. 

The average person gets an annual dose of radiation from radon over seven times as large as the dose of radiation received by a nuclear power plant worker. It’s roughly equivalent to having a CT scan of the head.[7]

What rules and regulations are there globally, for monitoring radon?

The WHO estimates that poor indoor air quality is responsible for nearly 3% of the global burden of disease.[8]

As public health bodies focus their attention on indoor air pollution, rather than concentrating only on the air outside, legislators are scrambling to keep up. For that reason, in the United States, and in Europe as well, radon regulations are being developed rapidly, as legislators look to implement a series of guidelines and action plans.

Radon in the United States

US_map_illustrationThe Indoor Radon Abatement Act (EPA 1988)  [9] established the goal of making indoor air in the US as radon-free as ambient air outdoors, while the Indoor Radon Abatement Reauthorization Act (1993) set out powers for dealing with excess radon.[10]

These pieces of law are still as important today as they were back then. The EPA is required to perform radon assessments where people work, live, or go to school, in order to assess the implications for health and determine measures to reduce or eliminate exposure to radon gas (SARA 1986).[11]

The National Radon Action Plan is a federal program aimed at mitigating radon risk.[12] The EPA recommends that levels of radon should not exceed 4 pCi/L (148 Bq/m3), but the exact requirements vary in individual states. 

Radon in the European Union and the UK

The EU published its Basic Safety Standards (BSS) directive on radon in 2018. The document requires employers to make sure their employees are protected and demands member states develop action plans to put radon compliance measures in place.[13]

The aim is to ensure that indoor concentrations of radon do not exceed 8 pCi/L (300 Bq/m3). Member states have responsibility for the exact means of implementing the directive, but they are required to act in line with the EU framework.

In the UK, the government launched a National Radon Action Plan that requires employers to act when radon levels are above the recommended EU limits. Radon should be measured during workplace risk assessments, while new buildings in areas with high radon concentrations should be protected by a ‘special membrane’ in the foundations.[14]

Germany implemented its provisions in the Radiation Protection Act in 2017.[15] Businesses in states where levels could be high are expected to measure radon levels and action must be taken to reduce keep levels within EU limits.[16] Previously the regulations only applied to certain workplaces like mines, radon spas, or water facilities, but now they’re in place for all commercial premises.

Radon in Norway and the rest of the world 

Norway_map_illustrationThe WHO says that a nation’s annual average concentration should not be above 2.7 pCi/L (100 Bq/m3). [17]

The Strategy for the Reduction of Radon Exposure in Norway sets this figure as the ‘action limit’ for all buildings in the country, while the maximum is set at (200 Bq/m3). The report recommends that all buildings should be measured regularly for the gas and that these checks should take place during the long winter months, when radon is most likely to have built up.[18]

The radon compliance rules in workplaces across the world are in various stages of development. Clearly, though, regulators are acting to address the issue and the direction of travel is toward monitoring and testing for the gas.

Radon in commercial buildings — staying compliant and protecting health

Monitoring radon

When it comes to complying with regulations, knowledge is power.

By installing indoor air quality monitors, you ensure you have information on radon on an ongoing basis. Relying on a one-off test could mean missing fluctuating levels or panicking unnecessarily over one unusually high reading. 

The Airthings for Business office solution uses monitors with long-lasting batteries and wireless technology. It is easy and painless to set-up with no costly, disruptive installation process. Up to 30 sensors link to one Smartlink Hub and the solution can be connected to existing HVAC or BMS systems for more intelligent and cost-effective use of energy.

The monitors provide detailed real-time and historical data on radon and other contaminants, via a user-friendly dashboard that can be accessed remotely. The system offers useful insights and alerts you to any problems as soon as they arise, so you can put them right.

As well as radon, Airthings for Business monitors measure carbon dioxide, total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs), temperature, humidity, pressure and light. These can all affect how efficiently and productively employees work in the office.  

The Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health conducted a study that found better air quality in offices made the average employee $17,000 more productive per year .[19]

How to improve radon levels in your workplace

If monitoring for radon reveals a problem, what can you do about it? Well, it depends on the scale of the issue. 

Radon comes from the ground, so it may be possible to tackle the gas simply by improving ventilation on the ground floor of your building. This could be as easy as opening windows, or it may require better use of the ventilation system.

The sharpened focus on radon and health means that the issue is becoming impossible for building owners, facility managers, and office manager to ignore.

The Airthings for Business solution offers a range of battery powered air quality monitors to suit your specific needs.  Easily integrate with your BMS solution and ensure the health and wellbeing of building occupants, and full regulatory compliance.  

In summary

  • Radon is a colorless, tasteless, odorless radioactive gas that builds up in office buildings and increases the risk of lung cancer when it’s inhaled.
  • The US, the EU, the UK, and Norway are all developing radon compliance regimes for commercial buildings that involve increased testing and risk assessment, while the WHO recommends strict guidelines.
  • Installing an indoor air quality monitor will ensure you have information on radon on an ongoing basis, whereas conducting a one-off test could miss fluctuating levels.
  • If you have a problem with radon in your building, the solution could be as easy as improving ventilation in lower floors.
  • The increasing focus on radon and health means it’s becoming impossible to ignore its impact on offices.

Sources:

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/radon-gas-the-silent-killer-in-the-countryside-2047987.html

[2] https://cfpub.epa.gov/roe/indicator_pdf.cfm?i=27

[3] https://www.ukradon.org/information/workplace

[4] https://www.nsc.org/Portals/0/Documents/NSCDocuments_Advocacy/Fact%20Sheets/Radon-and-Radiation.pdf

[5] https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon

[6] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_04_1539

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ionising-radiation-dose-comparisons/ionising-radiation-dose-comparisons

[8] https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.who.int/airpollution/publications/nationalburden/en/&sa=D&ust=1594729312880000&usg=AFQjCNGX8nD8sWxappUg_k9YlXSZdU44zg

[9] https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/indoor-radon-abatement-act-1988.html

[10] https://www.congress.gov/bill/103rd-congress/senate-bill/657

[11] https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-amendments-and-reauthorization-act-sara

[12] https://www.epa.gov/radon/national-radon-action-plan-strategy-saving-lives

[13] https://europa.eu/!CW87hP

[14] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-national-radon-action-plan

[15] https://www.bfs.de/EN/bfs/laws-regulations/radiation-protection-act/radiation-protection-act_node.html

[16] https://www.bfs.de/EN/topics/ion/environment/radon/regulations/work.html

[17] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/radon-and-health

[18] https://www.dsa.no/publication/strategy-for-the-reduction-of-radon-exposure-in-norway.pdf

[19] https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/27662232/4892924.pdf?sequence=1

 

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