‘Martin, I know you deal with funny things in buildings…’
Since 1970 I had been engaged in specialist building preservation services, below ground waterproofing, hygiene and public health services. Starting out as a ‘man in a van’, my career grew to include owning a specialist laboratory service, holding senior positions within various trade association and co-authoring official guidance documents.
I received a phone call in 1988 from the Managing Director of a national firm of Estate Agents. He had lost the sale of a large country estate (recognisable as the setting for a hit TV comedy show at the time) because the prospective buyer – an American – had asked him for information about something called ‘radon’. Knowing nothing about radon, he was unable to answer the questions and lost the sale. Understandably miffed at missing out on such a large transaction, the agent called me and said ‘Martin, I know you deal with funny things in buildings – tell me about radon’.
Around the same time, my company was delivering a series of technical seminars throughout the South West and South Wales. In the Question & Answers section at the end of each day, one topic kept being raised – radon.
In 1988 radon was classified as a human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Progress in developing public & professional awareness about the health risks of radon was painfully slow. A succession of Government official departments were tasked with educating the public but their efforts were largely unsuccessful.
After a major heart attack in 2009, when I was Managing Director of a national preservation company, it became clear that I should reduce my workload. I had little doubt as to where to devote my energies: Radon. Later that year, WHO published its Handbook on Indoor Radon which contained the key finding that the majority of radon-induced lung cancers occur at long term exposures to radon levels between 100 Bqm3 – 150 Bqm3. There are vast numbers of people exposed to these levels and relatively few to the much higher levels we previously thought were all we needed to be concerned with. WHO recommended that an ‘action level’ of 100 Bq/m3 should therefore be adopted.
2009 also brought the upsetting diagnosis that my eldest sister, Alethea, had lung cancer. Due to lifelong ill-health she spent more time than most at home and, in particular, downstairs in her living room. I had previously tested her house for radon and found the level to be 135 Bq/m3 within the living room, well below the prevailing UK Action Level of 200 Bq/m3.
Alethea died from lung cancer in 2011. As to cause, her consultant oncologist agreed that, as a non-smoker who had never been around second-hand smoke, long term radon exposure to a level of 135 Bq/m3 was the likeliest identifiable suspect.
It was a matter of painful irony that I – an early pioneer addressing radon matters – should see my own sister develop radon-induced lung cancer. I observed at first hand the truth in the saying that includes the words: ‘living with lung cancer is not easy’. Despite marvellous palliative care, I know that dying from lung cancer is not easy. I felt the pain and guilt that within my own expertise, Alethea’s death from lung cancer could have been prevented.
Alethea’s death galvanised and energised me to devote my working time to increasing awareness and action against radon. In 2011, I founded propertECO to fulfil that objective along with a colleague from a previous post, Rebecca Coates.
Since its inception, propertECO has always been in the forefront of radon matters. We founded the UK’s active trade association and became recognised across continental Europe and North America for our expertise. An American radon expert described Rebecca and I as being ‘the thought leaders’ in UK radon matters. We have been invited to deliver presentations at international conferences and regularly give seminars on the subject to building professionals across the UK.
Radon is a global problem and we placed the UK radon activity firmly at the centre of international expertise through the founding of the Coalition of International Radon Associations (COIRA), of which I was the first Chairman. In the UK, we increased awareness about radon by being the driving force behind Radon Awareness Week and the UK Radon Symposium events, both of which have grown into annual events.
In 2014, propertECO was named Britain’s Best Small Business and Rt Hon Don Foster, then Government Minister responsible for Building Regulations said, “the work Martin and Rebecca do is invaluable”.
I hope that the success of propertECO’s efforts to reduce the population’s exposure to radon provides a beneficial legacy from Alethea’s death.