While exposure to radon is the second-most leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, even at relatively low exposure levels, Spain still lags behind in protecting the public against indoor exposure to radon. There is pressure on Spain to effectively address the maximum radon concentration in buildings which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is responsible for 3 to 14 percent of cases of this lung cancer.
An Increasing Public Concern
The serious cancer cases allegedly caused by radon brought to light by the Spanish media over the last few months have raised public awareness regarding the health risks posed by this radioactive gas. In addition, major outreach activities have been conducted by public institutions—such as the Spanish Nuclear Safety Council and the National Research Council; associations—including the Spanish Association against Cancer and the Geo-environmental Health Foundation and academia to help prevent unnecessary exposure.
As a result, what started as an unknown naturally occurring danger is gradually becoming a real concern among the Spanish population. Citizens are now increasingly interested in performing radon tests in dwellings and workplaces, especially in those located within ‘high radon areas’ featured in the Radon Potential Map drawn up by the Spanish Nuclear Safety Council.
The Establishment of Binding Rules at EU Level
Following the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) in 2013, in particular, those in ICRP Publication 103, the Council of the EU adopted a newly revised Basic Safety Standards Directive.
The Directive, which seeks to protect individuals against the dangers that can arise from the occupational, medical or public exposure to ionizing radiation, applies to any planned, existing or emergency exposure situation involving a risk from exposure to ionizing radiation, such as:
- The manufacture, production, processing, handling, disposal, use, storage, holding, transport, import to and export from the EU of radioactive material
- The manufacture and operation of electrical equipment emitting ionizing radiation
- Human activities with natural radiation sources that could lead to a significant increase in the exposure of employees or the public—such as the exposure of a space crew—to cosmic radiation
- Domestic exposure to indoor radon gas and external exposure to gamma radiation from building materials
- Managing emergency exposure situations that require measures to protect the public and workers
There is little doubt that Spain must take swift action to get back on track regarding radon.
Pursuant to the revised Directive, which had to be transposed by all member states by February 6, 2018, Spain must ensure a system of regulatory control for exposure situations and review the national reference levels for indoor radon concentration at workplaces. In this regard, the reference level for the annual average activity concentration in air cannot be higher than 300 Becquerel (Bq) m –3. Furthermore, Spain must prepare a National Action Plan:
- Identifying the types of workplaces, dwellings and buildings with public access where radon tests must be carried out on a regular basis
- Establishing radon reference levels for dwellings and workplaces
- Including strategies for reducing radon exposure in dwellings and for facilitating post-construction remedial action
However, up until now, Spain has only partially transposed the updated Directive through Order ETU/1185/2017. The Directive only regulates the declassification of waste materials generated in nuclear facilities in order to manage, dispose of and/or recycle them by conventional methods. This means that Spain has failed to implement most of its provisions, particularly the ones reducing the maximum exposure levels and requiring the adoption of a National Action Plan.
A poor and incomplete national legal framework on radon
In practice, the current rules applicable to occupational exposure to naturally-occurring radiation are located in regulations from an earlier date, namely Royal Decree 783/2001 establishing the Ionizing Radiation Health Protection Regulation (focusing on more general aspects related to ionizing radiation) and Instruction IS-33 of 2011 on the radiological criteria for the protection against exposure to natural radiation (dealing more specifically with radon).
In accordance with those legal acts, employers of workers exposed to radon are required, among other things, to:
- Submit a declaration of activity to the relevant Industry Authority of the Autonomous Community where the activity takes place, within three months from the start of the activity
- Perform the necessary studies to determine the exposure to radon of workers and members of the public
- Submit their assessment results to the aforementioned authority whenever average annual radon (Rn-222) concentration exceeds the maximum exposure levels, established at 600 Bq/m3
- Re-assess exposure levels every five years (or after introducing any changes to the activity that could significantly change exposure levels, for instance)
- Keep written records of the implementation of corrective measures and make them available to the Spanish Nuclear Safety Council upon its request
Unsurprisingly, the entry into force of the updated EU Directive rendered some of those provisions obsolete (such as the one related to the maximum exposure level, now set at 300 Bq/m3, as stated above), meaning that Spain must agree upon and implement the new rules without delay.
Europe’s Laggard on Radon Prevention and Protection
On top of the aforementioned points, it seems that Spain still has a long way to go in the fight against this radioactive gas, if we compare it to its neighboring countries. This is particularly the case if we look at France, which adopted its third National Action Plan on Radon Risk Management for 2016-2019, or Ireland, which already established a radon measurement program in the early 1990s and has set a national reference level for radon in dwellings at 200 Bq/m3.
There is little doubt that Spain must take swift action to get back on track regarding radon. Although the Spanish Ministry of Health has not yet drawn up a National Action Plan, there are some efforts towards reform that should be noted. Such is the case with the proposal to amend Royal Decree 314/2006 approving the Technical Construction Code, which would require all buildings located in municipalities where a non-negligible risk of radon exposure has been detected to be equipped with the appropriate means to limit the foreseen risk.
To that end, an additional section specifically addressing the protection against radon (and thus setting a reference level of 300 bequerels (Bq) by m3 for indoor concentrations of radon) would be included in the ''DB HS Health'' document, which contains the basic health requirements that all buildings must comply with.
Although the proposal would meet the Directive’s reference levels, many critical voices have already been raised, as the proposal would not satisfy the maximum threshold recommended by both the World Health Organization and the Spanish Nuclear Security Council, set at 100 Bq/m3. One thing is for sure though―the status quo is no longer an option.
 WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, WHO Handbook on indoor radon. A public health perspective, France, 2009, p. 10. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44149/9789241547673_eng.pdf;jsessionid=EA6F3C102D0BF6815E19146536BD88DE?sequence=1
 LA VANGUARDIA, Radón, un peligro ignorado, Spain, 2018, https://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20180927/452050689110/radon-gas-radiactivo-cancer-pulmon.html?facet=amp
 REVISTA DE SALUD AMBIENTAL, Avances en el Plan Nacional Contra el Radón, Spain, 2017, http://ojs.diffundit.com/index.php/rsa/article/view/858/819
 NUCLEAR SAFETY COUNCIL, Radon Potential Map, Spain, 2017, https://www.csn.es/mapa-del-potencial-de-radon-en-espana
 INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION ON RADIOLOGICAL PROTECTION, ICRP Publication 103, Norway, 2007, http://www.icrp.org/docs/ICRP_Publication_103-Annals_of_the_ICRP_37(2-4)-Free_extract.pdf
 COUNCIL OF THE EU, Council Directive 2013/59/EURATOM, of 5 December 2013, laying down basic safety standards for protection against the dangers arising from exposure to ionising radiation, and repealing Directives 89/618/Euratom, 90/641/Euratom, 96/29/Euratom, 97/43/Euratom and 2003/122/Euratom, Belgium, 2013 https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32013L0059&from=EN
 According to the WHO, Radioactivity is measured in units called Becquerels (Bq). One Becquerel corresponds to the transformation (disintegration) of 1 atomic nucleus per second. Radon concentration in air is measured by the number of transformations per second in a cubic meter of air (Bq/m3).
 NUCLEAR SAFETY AUTHORITY, HEALTH MINISTRY, 3ème Plan National d’Action 2016-2019 pour la gestion du risqué lié au radon: une stratégice visant prioritatement l’information du public et des principaux acteurs, France, 2016, https://www.actu-environnement.com/media/pdf/news-28346-plan-action-radon-2016-2019.pdf
 ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, Radon results by County, Ireland, 2017,http://www.epa.ie/radiation/radon/awareness/results/
 See ‘Europa Press’ release: https://www.europapress.es/sociedad/medio-ambiente-00647/noticia-gobierno-propone-limite-exposicion-gas-cancerigeno-radon-tres-veces-menor-recomendado-oms-20180809172533.html and ‘Vive sin Radón’ article: https://vivesinradon.org/nuevo-cte-proteccion-frente-a-la-exposicion-al-radon-pero-poco/