Tens of thousands of European homes have high radon levels, but officials say many people question the danger in spite of research linking the colorless, odorless gas to fatal lung cancer.
Some researchers believe the continent may be years behind the United States in developing programs to meet the threat.
“We were two years behind the United States in recognizing the problem and it will take another two to three years to catch up,” said Bernd Franke of the West German Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg.
A traditional popular belief that the gas has curative powers compounds the problem. A few radon spas still operate in Austria and Hungary, and people still descend into deep caves in hope that the gas will help cure rheumatism and other ailments.
Radon is a radioactive gas produced in the decay of uranium, of which at least trace amounts are present in all soil and rock.
It tends to concentrate on the lower floors of buildings and kills by leaving its a residue in the lungs that irradiates the tissues for a lifetime. Smoking substantially increases the danger from radon, according to health officials.
U.S. health officials say radon exposure is second only to smoking as a cause of lung cancer and up to 20,000 Americans die of its effects each year.
American officials have declared 4 picocuries of radon per liter of air (150 becquerel per cubic meter) to be the level at which homeowners should take preventive action. That is the equivalent of smoking 10 cigarettes a day or having 200 to 300 chest X-rays a year.
West Germany recently set radon action limits at 250 becquerel per cubic meter, the equivalent of 6.6 picocuries. The limit for new houses in Sweden is 75 becquerel, or 2 picocuries.
Extensive testing and research programs are under way in Britain, West Germany, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland.
“It’s going to take a long time to pin down the houses at risk,” said Matthew Gaines of the National Radiological Protection Board in Britain.
Recent European studies have found:
- More than 20,000 British homes have high radon levels and 800 to 900 people die annually as a result of exposure to it. The Radiological Protection Board is testing a sample 17,000 homes.
- In Sweden, about 40,000 homes have unsafe levels of radon and roughly 60,000 houses are tested each year. More than 700 deaths a year are attributed to the gas and officials say the rate could reach 1,100 in the early 1990s.
- Up to 190,000 homes in West Germany have radon levels above government safety standards and about 2,000 radon-related deaths occur annually.
- Homes in volcanic areas of the upper Lazio region north of Rome had Italy’s highest radon concentrations.
- Most homes in Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Greece showed little radon risk to residents.
French officials have said radon is not a serious health risk in that country and some have discounted publicity about the gas in the United States and elsewhere.
“It’s a question that’s been a bit blown up in the media,” said Jean-Pierre Moroni of the government radiation control agency. “There’s a very simple measure. . . . Open a window when you get up. It’s a matter of good sense.”
French environmental activists disagree.
“To say there is no problem in France is a mistake,” said Corinne Castanier, who speaks for the Independent Regional Commission for Information on Radioactivity.
She said her group, established after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, has found high levels in some homes in the mountainous Massif Central region.
Officials in Britain and West Germany say they have trouble convincing residents of the danger.
“I think a lot of the reaction is a bit skeptical,” said Albert Weeks, chief building control inspector for the Kerrier District Council in Cornwall, southwest England.
“It’s almost a non-belief. They don’t really think it’s that bad,” Weeks said.