HC Deb 27 January 1987 vol 109 cc189-97 3.51 pm
The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Planning (Mr. William Waldegrave)

With permission, Mr. Speaker I wish to make a statement about measures to deal with the problems of naturally occuring radon gas in houses in some areas of the country.

Radon 222 is a naturally occurring radioactive gas which comes out of the ground, particularly in and around areas of igneous rock such as granite. In the open air it is dispersed, but concentrations can build up in buildings. The gas decays into minute solid particles which, if breathed in, can be deposited on the surface of the lungs. It has been known for a long time that occupational exposure to radon in uranium mines is associated with an increased incidence of lung cancer. The potential problem of radon in houses was recognised in the 1970s, following research in Sweden. The issue was highlighted in the United Kingdom by the 10th report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution in 1984.

In our response to that report, we stated that we would consider the need to take action once we had received advice from the National Radiological Protection Board based on work it already had in hand. The NRPB has now completed its work on the identification of areas of higher than average radon. The board has also considered the dose levels above which remedial action should be taken and has submitted its findings and recommendations. I have arranged for copies of its advice, along with copies of the advice which the Government have received from the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, to be placed in the Library of the House.

Both the NRPB and COMARE have advised that the available evidence strongly suggests that exposure to radon gas increases the risk of lung cancer. The risk increases the higher the level of radon and the longer the exposure continues. They therefore recommend that action should he taken to reduce the doses in existing dwellings with the greatest concentrations and to limit exposure in dwellings to he built in the future.

The NRPB and COMARE have made recommendations, which we accept, about levels of radon above which precautionary action is advisable. The figures are 20 mSv per annum as an action level in existing houses, with 5 mSv per annum as the design level for new houses. These levels will be kept under review in the light of any further evidence that emerges about the effects of radon on health, on which there will be further work.

The Government intend to tackle in three ways the problem of identifying houses where such action is needed. First, the NRPB estimates that there are some 20,000 existing houses with radon concentrations high enough to give rise to doses of 20 mSv or more and that remedial action should be taken on these in due course. Most are likely to be located in Devon and Cornwall. To identify the houses with the highest levels, the Government are funding a substantial survey by the NRPB. This survey will take about two years, as measurements are needed over a relatively long period to obtain an accurate estimate of radon concentration. Secondly, so that people who live where radon concentrations might be above or near the action level can find out the radon concentration in their houses even it' they are not within the scope of the NRPB survey, the NRPB will be arranging a measurement service at no cost to those concerned. Thirdly, in the remainder of the country, we judge that there is no need for special action and measurements will be made only at the expense of those who demand them. My Department is producing a leaflet, which will be made widely available in areas likely to have high radon concentrations. This will give full details of this service and other relevant advice to householders.

I want to stress that the risks from radon are assessed in terms of life-time exposure. There is therefore no need for drastic immediate measures to reduce levels. It is a matter of record that, in Devon and Cornwall, where radon levels tend to be higher than average, the death rate from lung cancer is lower than in many other parts of the country. The first step is to obtain an accurate measurement of the situation, so that the need for any remedial measurements can be properly assessed. This may take up to a year per house.

The responsibility for remedial measures in houses must rest with the house owner or the landlord in the case of both public and private rented accommodation. The Government are prepared to consider offering financial assistance towards the costs of remedial work to the most needy owner-occupiers.

Research work has already been undertaken both in this country and elsewhere on the type of remedial measures that may be appropriate, but the movement of radon gas into and within buildings is complex. Considerable further work is required. The Government intend to fund a two-year research programme on remedial and preventive measures to be undertaken by the Building Research Establishment. During the course of this programme, BRE will produce guidance notes, and these will be added to as we learn more.

For the future, we will make changes to the building regulations aimed at preventing the problem from occurring in new houses. We propose to provide guidance on practical measures which builders in particular areas may need to take.

We shall remain in close touch with work done abroad on this problem. Meanwhile, the measures that I have outlined demonstrate that we are taking the necessary steps to identify the extent of the problem, and to ensure that people in affected areas know what to do about it.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

The Minister has failed to outline the seriousness of the problem of radon, which was highlighted most recently in the report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution in 1984, as the Minister said. As the House knows, radon is a colourless and odourless gas, which is particularly highly radioactive. For most people, radon presents a more serious risk than all other natural sources of radioactivity put together. It is so serious that the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States has estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 deaths per year due to lung cancer are caused by radon. It is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the United States, following smoking. That is the seriousness of the problem that we are facing.

The Minister has proposed some limits, such as the limit of 20 mSv for established dwellings and 5 mSv for new dwellings. Why did he come to those precise figures? What were the figures applicable in the United States, and what are the figures applicable in Sweden, where a great deal of the research work has been done? I emphasise the point, because it is crucial that the House realises that the figure of 20 mSv a year is 14 times the average dosage of a worker in a nuclear installation and 1,000 times the dosage of a chest X-ray. Why was the figure 20 mSv chosen, when I was led to understand that the figure of 16 mSv was much more acceptable?

The Minister referred almost entirely to domiciliary buildings. Has he any proposals for places of work or any intentions for the mining industry? He also referred to the survey by the National Radiological Protection Board of parts of Devon and Cornwall. What are the boundaries of that survey?

If I may take that a stage further, I understand that in the map compiled by the NRPB it showed other parts of the country as well as Devon and Cornwall which suffered from hot spots. Why has the Minister decided that the people who live in the Derbyshire and Yorkshire Pennines, which had a high measurement reading, should not be included in this survey? Do the people in the northern parts of the country not matter? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] Conservative Members may moan, but it is a fact, as scientific evidence has shown, that there are hot spots in the Derbyshire and Yorkshire Pennines. If the limits and levels are to be adhered to in Devon and Cornwall, the same figures should apply to other parts of the country. The Minister owes the House an answer.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

It is unbelievable.

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman may well say that it is unbelievable, but this is a very serious matter.

The Minister referred to the levels of radar exposure and he outlined the cost of remedying this problem. As far as I can ascertain, the average cost will be £2,000 per house. Therefore, many householders in Devon and Corwall, on this suggestion, will have to find £2,000 per House. Has the Minister no plans to help the average householder? What are his plans to try to assist hard-pressed local authorities in Devon and Cornwall which are faced with this problem?

I think that the House has a right to expect answers to those simple questions because it is my contention that the Minister has played down the seriousness of this problem this afternoon.

Mr. Waldegrave

It seems to me that on this occasion the House has to walk a narrow tightrope. We have the information, but if it is wrongly deployed it will unnecessarily scare people.

It is possible for the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), in seeking to show that I am at fault, to score points off me in the House by trying to scare people. It is not worthy of the hon. Gentleman to try to scare people in Derbyshire when it is perfectly clear in my statement—it is all in the leaflet that the hon. Gentleman can read—that in some parts of the country, geologically, it is likely that it may be worth conducting a survey. We said in the statement that we shall pay for those surveys and they will be pari passu with other areas.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Sweden. At present, the limits in Sweden and Finland are higher than those that we are proposing. The hon. Gentleman said that we were, in some way, restricting the work of the NRPB. That is not true. The results of the scientific work done by the NRPB show that the "great majority" of the problem is concentrated in one area. The reason for that concentration is geological and no other. We have not restricted its work in any way.

The hon. Gentleman said that the cost would be £2,000 per annum. That must be wildly—

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

He did not say that.

Hon. Members

Yes, he did.

Mr. Waldegrave

I will give him the benefit of the doubt. I do not believe that he meant per annum. It is not possible to say how much it will cost. In some cases, the cost will be less and in other cases more. We shall, within the next few months, have the advice of the BRE. Its work is already in hand, which will put the matter in its proper context.

The hon. Member for South Shields mentioned places of work and he will be aware that those areas are already controlled by regulations under the Health and Safety Executive.

I believe that this matter is worthy of the attention of the House; otherwise I would not be here today. I urge all hon. Members — they have always said that if the Government are wholly open with environmental data they will try to assess the data properly—to respond in a way that does not cause unnecessary panic. Work is in hand.

May I remind people and those hon. Members whose constituents are affected that the level of lung cancer in Devon and Cornwall is no higher than the national average and that indeed, in the south-west it is below national average.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the statement that he has made and the thoughtful way in which it was presented.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that, in terms of the granite substructures and granite buildings, a significant proportion in Devon fall within the planning authority of the Dartmoor national park rather than the district council? Therefore, it should be in close contact with the Government. The question arises of the conversion of old granite agricultural buildings into dwellings, where this problem may be encountered at an early stage. I ask him to remember, in consultation with his officials, that the national park committee is effectively the planning authority for a large proportion of Devon and of the area likely to be affected by this hazard on which the Government are taking action.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend makes two fair points that I will take into account. Granite, as such, need not be the problem. Hon. Members may ask why the granite areas of Aberdeen, for example, are not mentioned in this statement. The reason is that the granite there is of a different geological type, being solid; it is fissured granite from which the gas may escape more easily.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

I put it to the Minister that his statement was not particularly precise. The Minister mentioned only Devon and Cornwall. I resent his accusation that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) was attempting to score points when he was seeking further information. Will the Minister confirm that other areas, in addition to the Pennines mentioned by my hon. Friend, could be affected? I am thinking particularly of North Wales, Cumbria and parts of Scotland, where the geology is similar to the affected parts of Cornwall. Will the Minister give an undertaking that, when the survey is complete, he will make the findings public so that people will have a chance to evaluate the extent of the problem? Will he give an undertaking to review the statement and his comments about the cost? It seems grossly unfair that the people in Devon and Cornwall will have the cost of the survey met presumably by a central fund, whereas people living in the more marginal areas will have to meet the cost themselves?

Mr. Waldegrave

I fear that I still have not got the point across. Where there is a prima facie case for saying that the geology of an area might give rise to problems, the survey will be free wherever one lives.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Shields, made a point to which I did not respond—about why we have come up with these limits. They are based on the unanimous advice of the two principal independent advisory bodies—NRPB and COMA RE. It would be quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman or myself, as laymen, to invent new numbers to please ourselves.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I appreciate my hon. Friend's candid statement. I do not wish to inflame the panic of those affected or exacerbate the fears of others — especially worried people in my constituency — who will have noted my hon. Friend's remarks about exposure to radon increasing the risk of lung cancer. I have taken that on board. But what good news can my hon. Friend give to a 55-year-old unemployed tin miner who, having had difficulty paying his mortgage for no reason in his control, finds himself living near Troon and Beacon, beside one of the identified houses? What assurance can my hon. Friend give that person, who has had a life time of exposure to radon gas? Will his welfare be protected and, above all, will he get some satisfaction that remedial action is on the way—not at the end of two years or, if he is lucky, at the end of a cut-price instant survey by the NRPB? What immediate steps will be taken to remove his fears and worries and his potential suffering, which is growing by the day?

Mr. Waldegrave

The first thing is that my hon. Friend should join me in explaining this situation in as little emotive language as can be mustered.

It will make no difference whatsoever to the risks faced by the 55-year-old man who has always lived in the same place if the survey is delayed to ensure the action taken is correct? I urge my hon. Friend to advise his constituents—we will give all the help we can with all the resources of government to give such advice—that he does not go out of his way to tell people that they should take panic action when the additional risk is minimal. Many of his constituents will have lived there with lower chances of cancer, as the statistics show, than the rest of the country. That remains the fact.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I welcome the Minister's statement, especially in relation to the free measurement. Given that it occurs capriciously and not across the whole country, will he assist local authorities, as the public landlord, especially in areas where there is a higher incidence, such as in the constituency of my late colleague in Truro. I understand that in an area called Trerace in St. Stephen, pregnant women are advised to move out because of the risk of miscarriage. Will he continue the research into the subject? Will he look at Professor Emlin's assertion that radon can emanate from coal ash, thus suggesting a far wider incidence around the country than just from granite? Will he study Professor Stein's view that there is a possible way of prevention through chemical absorption? Will he maintain the research into that, which may well produce some results?

Mr. Waldegrave

On the latter point, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be continuing research sponsored by the Department of the Environment, the DHSS and the NRPB. I am sure that we must discuss the scale of the problem and the cost of the remedial action with the local authorities. I must say to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) that we must emphasise to those who may be in real difficulty that we do not have a closed mind about bringing help to those in need who may have to spend money to deal with the matter in due course.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having the courage to make a statement to the House. Will he please guard against the obvious danger that unnecessary panic may be spread among people in Cornwall, especially — I am sorry to say this — in the light of the initial reaction from the Opposition? Will he bring as much inforation to the public as possible on a continuing basis? Will he make sure that those responsible press ahead with all speed with further monitoring' Will he warn people to be on their guard against unscrupulous contractors who might want to rush in and try to gull people into ordering all sorts of bogus equipment and carrying out all sorts of inefficient work to deal with the problem?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend's points are absolutely right. I should like to endorse what he said about bogus contractors. He, I and others who will be trying to address the media in the south-west should get the message across clearly: if somebody turns up on the doorstep in the next few weeks saying, "Well, squire, I've got a way to cure the old radon problem," he should he sent packing. Anyone who has any doubt about this matter should get in touch with the NRPB. The address is in the leaflets that we will be distributing. They should get in touch with my Department or with the DHSS if there is further doubt. The advice will be there. We have started to deal with the problem on the principle of openness that we are trying to establish in the environmental area. That is the only way forward, and we will continue in that style.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will the Minister confirm, allowing for the fact that it is the early stage of deliberations, that finance will be available to local government if necessary and to private tenants or owner-occupiers? On the distribution of information, will he take into account the fact that some of the cottages may be holiday cottages, either bought or intended to be sold, and that the information should be given out accordingly?

Mr. Waldegrave

The last point is a sound one. However, if the cottages are not occupied throughout the year, the effective dose will be much lower. We have said that we will look at support for needy owner-occupiers and I have no doubt that the councils most affected will want to discuss their housing investment programme allocation to see whether there is a need for adjustment.

Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North)

Will the Minister confirm that double glazing is inclined to increase the concentration of thoron and radon gas due to the absence of any leaks of air into the room? Will he give any figures that he might have as to the number of deaths in the United Kingdom that can be attributed to that source, and will he confirm that the amount of radiation emitted from nuclear power stations is quite small compared with the amount of radon radiation that occurs in extensive parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Waldegrave

On my hon. Friend's first point, I do not want to start giving ad hoc advice from the Dispatch Box today. It is better to await the systematic professional advice from the Building Research Establishment. My hon. Friend's second point was quite right. Eighty-seven per cent. of the average exposure of our citizens to radiation comes from natural sources, 32 per cent. comes from radon gas and 0.1 per cent. is from discharges from the nuclear industry. It is worth keeping those things in proportion.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I welcome the statement made by the Minister which is made with some justification. On 1 December 1986, I tabled early-day motion 211 which made specific reference to these matters.

[That this House notes that, according to the National Radiological Protection Board, 32 per cent. of radiation exposure to the average United Kingdom citizen is due to naturally occurring radon gas; that radon levels vary widely between different parts of the United Kingdom; that concentrations of radon gas in some houses can give rise to radiation exposures in excess of the annual maximum permissible levels for a member of the public and that, in extreme cases, can lead to exposures that exceed occupational dose limits for radiation workers; notes also that any exposure to radiation will increase the risk of cancer, genetic damage and possibly other health effects to exposed people; that radiation protection requires that all radiation exposures are kept as low as reasonably practicable; and therefore calls on Her Majesty's Government to (a) set standards for maximum permissible radon gas concentrations in all United Kingdom buildings, (b) introduce building regulations to require that all new buildings prevent, as far as is possible, the entry of radon gas and (c) set up a national programme to reduce radon gas concentrations in all existing houses and public and private buildings to below this maximum permissible level.]

The three things I called for in that early-day motion have been met in some measure today. In response to the comments about opposition from Labour Benches, I must say that the only people who signed that early-day motion were members of the parliamentary Labour party.

The Minister said that the standards in Finland and Sweden are, to use his word, higher. There can be confusion. In these regulations we are talking about 20 mSv for old dwellings and 5 mSv for new dwellings. Will the Minister give a figure for old and new dwellings in Finland and Sweden so that we know whether he means more than 20 mSv or less or more than 5 mSv or less?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that convention prevented me from signing his early-day motion. I do not want to attach myself to them too closely, because I have no doubt that there may be revisions abroad, as there may be here if we learn more, but the present figures are 40 mSv for existing buildings and 10 mSv for new buildings. Those figures may be altered in the future.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Does my hon. Friend recall the written answer he gave on 7 June 1985 about the levels of gamma radiation dose rates? Will he confirm that none of the counties mentioned by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), is listed in the 20 places with the highest levels in England and Wales? Therefore, it might be advantageous if, before he came to the House, he did a little more homework.

After my hon. Friend's written answer to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who is as ever assiduously in his place, provided me with a further answer that compared statistically, from the NRPB figures, the level of existing radiation dose rates in establishments where there are nuclear installations in this country. Every one was way below the figures given for naturally existing radiation dose rates. Is he aware that at Sellafield there is about one third the level of Dartmoor and at Winfrith in Dorset about one eighth? Will he do everything he can to ensure that the anti-nuclear brigade do not try to spread alarm when there is no justification for linking the presence of radon gas with nuclear installations?

Mr. Waldegrave

Even the most hardened campaigner would be hard put to blame Lord Marshall for the presence of radon gas in the crust of the earth, but someone may try. My hon. Friend accused me of not having done my homework—

Mr. Adley

Not you.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend accused the hon. Member for South Shields of not doing his homework. My hon. Friend is entirely right. I was going to add a gloss by saying that we are interested in alpha radiation because, using the jargon, it is the daughters of radon, the decayed products of radon — solid particles that emit alpha radiation that can he ingested into the lungs—that cause the problems.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

If I understood my hon. Friend correctly, he referred to the risk being calculated on the basis of a lifetime's exposure. Bearing in mind that that would suggest that somebody would have to be living in a house from their birth to their death, rarely going out and living in a badly ventilated house, does that not put things in context and show how infinitesimal the risk is? Can my hon. Friend relate the degree of radioactivity that can be expected to the dose that might be received simply by watching a television set?

Mr. Waldegrave

I do not have the television figure in my mind. However, in spite of the presence beside me of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, I have another dose figure in my mind; that is the comparison with the average smoker's increased risk of lung cancer. We are talking about levels in the affected areas of about fifty times less than the self-inflicted risks of the average smoker.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Can my hon. Friend give a straightforward assurance, both to the House and to the nation, that what he has said this afternoon should not have an adverse effect on the tourist industry of Devon and Cornwall, or any other individual who wishes to visit the west country?

Mr. Waldegrave

I can give that assurance with absolute certainty. In terms of the comparative risk of increased radiation, for example, of going abroad in an aeroplane—one has a brief dose of radiation if one flies in an aeroplane — the risks are not worth worrying about for the tourist visitor to the south-west.