Experts call for better indoor radon control

In collaboration with the Press Association

UK scientists have called for all new homes to feature preventive measures against radon gas, exposure to which can increase the risk of lung cancer.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is produced by the decay of uranium in the ground.

Certain areas of the UK, such as parts of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, have higher-than-average levels of the gas.

Government policies currently concentrate on searching for homes with high levels of radon and encouraging homeowners to pay for remedial action where necessary.

However, a new study on bmj.com suggests that the majority of cases of radon-related lung cancer result from exposure below the current action level.

Researchers at the University of Oxford analysed data on 7,000 lung cancer patients and more than 21,000 cancer-free people across Europe.

They estimate that 1,100 deaths every year in the UK are related to radon, including around 3.3 per cent of all deaths from lung cancer.

However, their results suggest that fewer than five per cent of radon-related deaths affect people who were exposed to high levels.

They claim that current government policies are therefore failing to prevent many radon-related deaths and that simple preventive measures should be installed in new homes throughout the UK.

Such measures would cost as little as £100 per home and would reduce radon levels by around 50 per cent.

Ed Yong, Cancer Research UK health information manager, said: "This study confirms that protecting new buildings against radon can provide large public health benefits at very little cost. But radon-proofing existing homes is more expensive, and we need better incentives and policies to encourage homeowners to do so.

"It's important to remember that smoking is a far greater cause of lung cancer than radon. For people exposed to high levels of radon, the odds of developing lung cancer are still only 1 in 150 if you're a non-smoker, but 1 in 7 if you smoke. The best way to reduce the risk of lung cancer remains to avoid smoking."

Professor Anssi Auvinen, from the University of Tampere in Finland, and Professor Goran Pershagen, from Sweden's Institute of Environmental Medicine, note that this is the most extensive evaluation of policies to reduce radon-related deaths from lung cancer to date.

Writing in an accompanying editorial in the British Medical Journal, they claim: "Radon policies need to be scrutinised [and particularly in populations with low average levels], the priority should be to apply basic measures universally rather than to take action only when high radon levels have been identified by measurement."

Ref: Alastair Gray et al; BMJ 2009, 338:a3110

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