Carte Blanche Investigates Radon

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Devi Sankaree Govender - Before I started working on our next story, I had no idea as to what radon was. Millions of South Africans are exposed to this radioactive gas in our homes and workplaces every single day. It's been flagged worldwide, yet we don't have any regulations to protect us.

 

53-year-old Capetonian Grant Hatch, the father of four sons, married the love of his life Heather 26 years ago. But in recent years, both were diagnosed with lung cancer. Grant was in shock when his doctor gave him the news.

 

Grant Hatch - And he just said to me: "I don't know how to tell you this, but you've got cancer".

 

D.S. Govender - For someone in peak fitness who had competed in 13 marathons, cancer was unthinkable. Especially odd was the fact that his wife got the same diagnosis. Their lifestyles were quite different, and to make sense of it all, he undertook research into causes of lung cancer.

 

G. Hatch - So what I did is that I found on the Internet this group started by a Norwegian guy. So, his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and she's got the same kind of cancer I've got.

 

D.S. Govender - In the group, a gas called radon kept coming up. Grant had never heard of it. He approached a South African researcher with expertise in radon. Ryno Both is a nuclear physicist and the CEO of CareTac, a company doing radioactive testing. Grant consulted with him.

 

Ryno Botha - So, radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, and I'd like to emphasize, it's natural. It's not produced in a nuclear power plant. It's not produced at an isotope production facility. It's natural. We can't use any of our human senses to detect it. You can't smell it. You can't taste it.

 

D.S. Govender - Radon is formed when uranium decays and is found in the ground, rocks, and even in water. It is radioactive and emits alpha radiation. It's considered a grade 1A cancer-causing agent.

 

Radon can enter your home in many ways. Radon seeps from the ground and can also enter a house through air and ground water. If ventilation is poor, it can accumulate to dangerous levels. Both Grant and Botha tested his current home.

 

G. Hatch - Then we couldn't find anything here. Then I stopped and said 'no, it's not here'. So I went out to our farmhouse, and we found it in our farmhouse. 483 Bq/m3 in that house.

 

D.S. Govender - Radon concentration is measured in Becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m3). Acceptable levels in homes, according to the World Health Organization, are around 200 Bq/m3). Botha tested the farmhouse near Barrydale where Grant and his family had lived for 15 years.

 

R. Botha - We were quite shocked. We did measurements, and they were about 10 times as high as what you will find in average conditions. So, it was quite high.

 

D.S. Govender - Grant's wife was diagnosed in March 2018 and died three months later. A statistician at Cambridge University worked out that the odds of both Heather and Grant getting lung cancer at the same time from natural causes was 1.75 billion. Grant was convinced that it was because of the radon in their house.

 

Professor Michael Herbst is the spokesperson for the Cancer Association of South Africa.

 

Michael Herbst - Radon gas is the second most important cause of lung cancer worldwide, following on tobacco usage. And that is very scary.

 

D.S. Govender - It's scary, because radon is a gas that is inhaled.

 

M. Herbst - The radon usually attaches itself to small particles in the air, like little gas particles. One inhales it, it is electrically charged. So, it attaches itself to the most lower part of the lungs, where the cells are single-layer cells, where the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange takes place. And it must be remembered that is alpha rays, and they can only penetrate a very single layer of cells. And that is where they do their damage, and they cause DNA damage right down in the lungs. And that is why radon is such an important cause of lung cancer.

 

D.S. Govender - The link between radon and lung cancer is such a well-established medical fact that, internationally, many countries require property transactions to include a radon compliance certificate, much like electricity compliance certificates in South Africa.

 

Because South Africa is so rich in minerals, radon is known to occur at dangerous levels throughout the country. The only comprehensive study on indoor levels of the gas took place in 2002. Remember, a reading of 200 Bq/m3 or less is considered acceptable. Maximum readings in houses in 2002 were 842 in Paarl, 595 in Parys, 440 in Randberg, 393 in Nababeeb, and 273 in Krugersdorp. And we know that in the Hatchs' farmhouse near Berrydale, readings peak near 500 Bq/m3.  

 

R. Botha - We can expect every 1 in 15 houses to contain high radon concentrations.

 

D.S. Govender - It's a frightening figure based on international statistics, and few people are aware of it. But in other countries, like the US, legislation around radon gas has been in place for over 70 years. In South Africa, there are no regulations. This, in spite of the fact that the gold mining industry is notorious for contaminating the land with radioactive waste. Mariette Liefferink of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment says that the Witwatersrand 270 mine dumps are radioactive.

 

Mariette Liefferink - So the 270 tailing storage facilities or mine dumps in the Witwatersrand contain 600,000 tons of uranium.

D.S. Govender - And where there is uranium, there is radon. Carte Blanche has reported extensively on this problem. Literally hundreds of thousands of people in informal settlements live on or near contaminated sites, such as the notorious Tudor and Lancaster dams, and the Tudor shaft. But despite the menaces to human life, there is little action on the ground.

 

M. Liefferink - In 2009 it was recommended that it should be urgently mediated or rehabilitated. We are now in 2019, ten years later, and there's been no rehabilitation. Not only that, it's unfenced, no warning signs, no access control.

 

D.S. Govender - Issues around radon gas are complex, but the buck has to stop somewhere. Who is ultimately responsible for addressing the problem?

 

The answer is simple: the National Nuclear Regulator. The statutory body in recent years has introduced stern regulations for the mining industry, but none protecting the public from radiation and radon. John Poole heads up the Department of Environmental and Radiation Protection at the NNR. We approached him to find out more about radon gas.

 

D.S. Govender - And where does it occur in South Africa? Any hotspots?

 

John Pule - In this stage, I need to say to you that in South Africa we have actually not done a substantial work to determine, to an extent that we can be able to determine hotspots, if any.

 

D.S. Govender - My concern, and I'm saying, is that maybe we should have started on this a while ago.

 

J. Pule - One of the things we are actually working on at this stage is what we call the National Radon Action Plan. So, in the National Radon Action Plan, essentially what we will be doing, we will be putting together a document that will identify, that scopes this problem, and will then identify all the necessary subprojects and projects that need to be undertaken.

 

D.S. Govender - John, I know it sounds like I'm hammering you here on this question, but I have to put it to you again. Radon - not good for human health. Uranium - not good for human health. Those are facts and those are long-established facts. I still don't understand why, as the National Nuclear Regulator, it's taken us so long. We are not even at a point where we have any legislation. This is an old story that it takes a long time to make legislation in any country. I'm trying to figure out how we can save people's lives here.

 

J. Pule - I do not want to suggest that people's live... We've got to remember we've got to work on... At this stage, we are saying, theoretically, there could be a problem. Now we have to get to the levels, we've got get underground, and quantify.

 

D.S. Govender - It seems that regulations are very far off. Even research is in the panic stages. But in the absence of regulations, it's possible to take action to mitigate against high radon levels in your home. The U.S. Department of Housing suggests the following measures to mitigate the risks:

 

  1. Test your house for radon regularly.

  2. Make sure every room is well ventilated.

  3. Seal cracks in floors and walls.

  4. Use radon-resistant construction techniques.

 

John Pule says that the NNR has a public outreach effort to inform the public about radiation, but he couldn't specify how many people have been reached.

 

While the NNR seems uncertain about the scope of the problem and has decided to do more research, regulations to protect the public against radon have been delayed.

 

J. Pule - Our hope is that, ultimately, after we have done the studies, the answer is: "whooo", you don't have a problem.

 

D.S. Govender - For now, Grant Hatch has decided to fight the lung cancer with all he has and remains convinced that the disease was caused by radon. If I had known of the risks of radon, my wife would still be alive today and I wouldn't have to be a single father looking after four boys. That's really the reality of this.