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Radon in the Home: Confronting a Global Challenge

Representatives from Member States of the European region participated in discussions at the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna, 22 to 25 April.

Until relatively recently, the dangers posed by radon and its decay products were largely unknown. Although the presence of radon in indoor air was documented as early as 1950, it was only regarded as threatening in the context of uranium mining. But in the 1970s, after a series of widely-publicized health incidents, research began to investigate sources of indoor radon and their possible health effects.

In 2011, the Agency strengthened the International Basic Safety Standards to reflect our evolving understanding of the risks associated with radon. The IAEA's technical cooperation (TC) programme has also responded to the maturing science surrounding radon with the implementation of TC projects which seek to upgrade national systems for radon protection.

Radon is an element which boasts very curious characteristics-among gases, it's rare due to its density and its exclusively-radioactive isotopes. Radon is formed as part of the decay process of thorium or uranium, which slowly break down into lead over time. As the newly-produced radon decays, it creates radioactive elements called 'radon daughters'. But unlike their parent element, which is gaseous, radon daughters are solids and can stick to surfaces, such as motes of dust in the air, and can increase the risk of lung cancer when inhaled.

The risk of radon exposure isn't exclusive to any particular geographical region or income level-the element can be found in equal measure around the world, and is often dangerous when it's unearthed. At their current levels, the annual worldwide exposure to radon translates into a per capita dose of approximately 1.2 mSv, almost the equivalent of a flight attendant's annual exposure to radiation.

In 2012, at the request of the Albanian government, the first TC project to evaluate the contribution of radon to background radiation was established, with the aim of proposing reduction methods. IAEA experts provided expertise and training to their Albanian counterparts at Tirana University and the Centre for Applied Nuclear Physics, laying down the foundations for a robust national radon protection scheme. Since then, projects have started in Latvia and Montenegro, all with the express aim of ensuring public health by minimizing radon exposure.

A recently-inaugurated regional project is bringing together 34 Member States from the European region in order to manage health risks. In some of the participating countries, radon strategies have yet to be developed, and in others, they will need to be revised and enhanced. Through regional collaboration, this TC project will develop the national policies needed to ensure that radon concentrations in dwellings and other buildings with high occupancy factors for members of the public are adequately controlled in line with accepted international standards. Such buildings include kindergartens, schools and hospitals

On 22-25 April, the IAEA, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, organized a regional workshop under TC Project RER/9/127, "Establishing Enhanced Approaches to the Control of Public Exposure to Radon," for Member States from the European region who plan to establish, or have already begun to establish, a national radon action plan. More than 30 experts and national delegates attended the event, which sought to outline and discuss the many preventative measures used to curb radon exposure.

There is little doubt that radon poses a health risk to those exposed. But with the necessary building codes, measurement techniques and culture of awareness, this threat can be significantly diminished. Jiří Hůlka, a radon expert from the National Radiation Protection Institute in the Czech Republic, attended the recent IAEA workshop and explained, "The radon problem can be solved by corrective action." The tools for that corrective action exist today, and their use will be increasingly promoted by both the IAEA and its Member States.

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