Public risk communication

Abstract (II ERA workshop, Prague 2014)


In keeping with the new EU BSS an important component of a national radon strategy to reduce public exposure to radon must be a radon risk communication strategy. The most important objectives of such a strategy should be : (1) Raising public awareness of radon and its associated health risks, (2) Persuading the public to measure radon in their homes and (3) Persuading householders to take action to reduce elevated indoor radon concentrations. To the present time, with some exceptions, progress in achieving these objectives in most EU Members States has been very poor. The reasons for this are many and complex. One of the biggest problems the radiation protection community faces in dealing with public exposure to radon in existing dwellings appears to be apathy both on the part of the public and of some decision makers. It is very difficult to persuade members of the public to measure radon in their homes. Even when informed that the radon concentration in their home is above a national reference level only a disappointingly low percentage of householders will decide to remediate. In this presentation an overview will be given of the various components of radon risk communication such as the identification of target audiences, the messages to be used and the appropriate channels of communication.

Before launching a radon risk communication campaign radon awareness surveys should be carried out in order to determine the present state of knowledge of radon in the communities to be targeted . Radon Focus Groups should also be established where discussions take place with a representative selection of the public. These discussions can be used to assess and improve the effectiveness of future radon awareness campaigns. All aspects of the campaign should be discussed such as an evaluation of information on radon given in brochures, posters, help lines etc. An important objective of a focus group is to try to determine the barriers that exist in the minds of the public in regard to carrying out a radon measurement and taking remedial action in their homes. If possible radon information campaigns should be linked to other health or environmental campaigns such as national anti-smoking campaigns.

When communicating with the public radon risk messages should be simple but scientifically accurate. A great difficulty in this regard is to describe the risks in a form that will be easily understood by the public. Where possible standard radiation risk related terminology,which are unfamiliar to the public, such as mSv etc should be put into a comparative perspective with everyday risks in life. This may make help to make radon risks more easily understood by the target audiences. This is not a trivial task and if not carefully structured may cause an increase in confusion rather than clarification. This is an issue which must be addressed sooner than later by the radiation protection community if strategies to reduce public exposures to radon are to become effective.


Extract on Radon Risk Communication from the RADPAR (Radon Prevention and Remediation) Project Recommendations (

The RADPAR Project (2009-2012) was funded by the European Community, Executive Agency for Health and Consumers (EAHC), in the priority area: Promote Health (HP – 2008). Coordinator : Prof. John Bartzis , University of Western Macedonia , Kozani , Greece ( Risk Communication Work Package Leader : James Mc Laughlin, University College Dublin. (


3.1. Radon Awareness Surveys (RAS) should be an essential component of a risk communication strategy

Radon Awareness Surveys (RAS) should be an essential component of a risk communication strategy both at the planning stage of communication campaigns and on a continuous basis. . The knowledge and insight gained by such exercises will be of assistance to the design of the campaign. A RAS should also be carried of the same target audiences after a communication campaign to assess its effectiveness. This will be of assistance in improving any future campaigns.

3.2. Identify target audiences and tailor communication information accordingly

Apart from the general public (especially home owners) elected representatives (politicians) and other decision makers should be key target audiences. In particular this could be important at local government (municipality) level where, in many countries, decisions on planning and house construction could include specifications aimed at prevention of high radon levels in future housing. Where decision makers at local government level have a responsibility for ensuring healthy living conditions in homes under their control they should be a target audience to encourage a programme of radon measurement and remediation where necessary. Targeting radon information at locally elected representative may be quite effective at stimulating action against radon.

3.3. Keep messages simple but accurate in particular when communicating with the public

A number of simple core messages, preferably non-quantitative, on radon risk and its control should be established and used in all communication campaigns. The following list of radon risk core messages given in the WHO Handbook on Indoor Radon 2009 are good examples of these:

(a) Radon is a radioactive gas present in homes.

(b) Radon causes lung cancer

(c) Radon is easy to measure.

(d) You can easily protect your family from radon.

In addition to messages giving basic information about radon health effects communications with the public should stress the importance of reducing the radon exposure of their children in the home and at school. Messages (a) and (b) inform the public in a simple way that there is a health risk from radon in their homes. Further non-core messages can elaborate on these by informing the public of such facts that radon is natural, where it comes from, how it may enter and accumulate in indoor spaces, that the risk increases with the radon concentration and duration of exposure, that the combined effects of smoking and radon exposure are much greater than simply adding the individual risks etc etc.

Messages (c) and (d) are meant to stimulate action against radon by pointing out that it is easy to measure radon in homes and to protect against it. Experience gained by the US-EPA shows that putting emphasis on protecting the family from health hazards is much more effective in encouraging action against the hazard than emphasising protecting oneself.

3.4. Appropriate communication channels should be used to communicate information

Within the context of the national radon strategy some or all of the following channels should be considered. For a basic information platform, websites and information brochures have to be provided. . As a general support the mailing of information brochures, advertising in newspapers and magazines, radon phone-in helpline, stands at public and construction trade exhibitions, press releases, radio and TV popular science programmes etc. can be recommended. Trained radon mitigators and other construction professionals can also act as secondary channels of communication.

3.5. Radon Focus Groups and attention to regional characteristics should be used to assess and improve communication effectiveness

In a Focus Group discussions should take place between radiation protection or other public health officials and a representative selection of the public. These discussions should focus on determining the effectiveness of radon risk communication campaigns. This typically would take place in a region where high radon concentrations had been found. All aspects of the campaign can be discussed such as an evaluation of information on radon given in brochures, posters, help lines etc. An important objective of a focus group is to try to determine the barriers that exist in the minds of the public in regard to carrying out a radon measurement and taking remedial action in their homes when it is recommended.

3.6. Dissemination of radon risk information should be endorsed by well known national and local health and environmental agencies

This recommendation is aimed at improving the credibility of the disseminated information. The public generally may know and trust their local health agency. Because the public usually has little or no direct contact with the national radiation protection agency information coming from it may have low credibility. At its simplest level this endorsement could take the form of having the logos of such agencies on all radon information brochures etc. Stronger forms of such endorsement should be considered such as having speakers from these other agencies at local and national Radon Forums.

3.7. If possible radon information campaigns should be linked to other health or environmental campaigns

Policies and strategies aimed at the control of indoor radon exposure should be linked to other public health initiatives aimed at reducing risks to the public from the inhalation of other indoor airborne pollutants (see 1.1.3 and 1.2.1).

Another approach is to link radon to green building labels, as these labels already focus on different indoor air quality and building standards. Radon could so easily be integrated into existing standards.

3.8. The services of a good professional marketing company should be considered in the design and execution of radon communication campaigns

Specialist scientists are not always the best communicators of risk information… Specialized communication departments and professional marketing companies are likely to have more success in overcoming public apathy towards the radon problem and in motivating action against it than professional scientists.

3.9. Educate health officials, professional groups and the media regarding radon, its risks and its control

Establishing links with respected individuals in professional groups (such as medical, teaching and the construction industry representative bodies) and also with the media is important. Keeping these individuals and groups informed and educated on developments in the radon field (epidemiology, preventative and remediation construction technologies, reference and action level recommendations and legislation) should help to form an additional channel of communication and approval for a national radon control strategy.

3.10. Regularly assessment of information campaigns on radon should be carried out.

Information campaigns on radon, whether directed at the public or decision makers, should be regularly assessed and repeated (again and again and again …) over many years.

3.11. Stakeholders

To support a campaign partners (stakeholder approach) should be integrated. These are medical doctors, pharmacists, home inspectors and architects. To raise their knowledge special training courses should be developed and offered.

3.12. Additional concepts from a health marketing approach

To change behaviour the classical risk communication approaches of “knowledge and attitude” not only have to be considered but also offers for appropriate incentives to stimulate the public to take action. Feedback should be an essential component of such measures. By these means a good risk communication lays the basis of a change of behaviour and steps towards taking action to reduce radon concentrations.