In 2003, the couple were shocked when they discovered their home on the Spa Road, Tralee, Co Kerry, had radon gas levels that were six-and-a-half times above the acceptable safe level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/M3).
The couple have had remedial work carried out to their home but are anxious their grandchildren, who visit them regularly, come to no harm.
“We think we have it sorted now. It cost us €2,000 but we feel we did what was right for us,” said Mr O’Neill.
The former council house, one of four in a block, was built on limestone and cracks in the rock has caused the radon gas to seep into the building.
“We got a couple of checks on it (the house) afterwards and it has come down from 1,312 Ba/M3 to just over 100 Bq/M3. We are getting it checked again just to be sure,” he said.
The couple, who have five adult children and four grandchildren, were surprised that the terraced house next to them did not have a problem with radon gas.
“We were just unlucky. Thankfully both of us are in very good health. Both of us do not smoke or drink but who knows what would have happened if we had not got it sorted,” he said.
Radon is the second biggest cause of lung cancer after smoking and is linked to 150 to 200 lung cancer deaths each year in Ireland.
More homes have been measured this year than every before due to a concerted public awareness drive by the Radiological protection Institute of Ireland (RPII).
A total of 4,296 homes were measured by the institute for radon between January 1 and August 30. Of these, 597 were above the acceptable level.
Parts of Kerry, particularly areas of Tralee and Castleisland, have excessive levels of radon. Fine Gael TD Jimmy Deenihan believes not enough is being done to encourage people living in these areas to get their homes tested.
In July 2003, a test carried out by the RPII found the highest levels of radon ever identified in Ireland in a house in the Castleisland area.
The householder had requested the survey and it was found that the house had radon concentrations of about 49,000 Bq/M3 – almost 250 times higher than the national reference level for radon in homes and one of the highest values ever recorded in Europe.
Mr Deenihan, Fine Gael’s spokesperson for tourism, culture and sport, said the householder’s wife had died five years earlier from lung cancer and in 2002, the householder was diagnosed with lung cancer and had died since.
As both people were young, healthy and non-smokers, a medical expert had advised them to have their home tested for radon gas.
“A radon expert likened exposure to one day’s radon in this household to one week’s exposure to the radioactive plant in Sellafield,” Mr Deenihan said.
He pointed out that along a one-mile stretch of road, which included the household, nine people, many middle-aged and younger had died from cancer over the previous decade.
When the household in Castleisland was discovered the RPII carried out a survey of 377 homes in the area.
Of those surveyed, 52 were found to have radon concentration above the recommended level.
Eight homes in Tralee were found to have radon levels 10 times over the recommended level. The town council had advised every householder in the Tralee area to test their house for radon levels.
“It is a serious issue, particularly in parts of Kerry and I don’t think it is being addressed properly,” he stressed.
Mr Deenihan also believes a national radon strategy should be drawn up by all of the relevant agencies to address the problem.