When the phone rings at the South Frontenac Township offices in Sydenham, chances are it could be John McEwen calling. And if it is, the staff or council member he is calling better be prepared to talk about the Canadian and Ontario Building Codes and the township’s responsibility to enforce provisions pertaining to damp proofing vs waterproofing walls that are below ground level.
McEwen runs a waterproofing business and, as he told the News again this week, “I have been trying to put myself out of business for years and years, but the township, the City of Kingston, no one will do what it takes to make my services redundant.”
McEwen’s name may be familiar to readers because he ran for Mayor of South Frontenac in the 2014 election and he used the campaign to advocate for enforcement of the Ontario Building code provisions regarding waterproofing when buildings are being constructed.
“It would add only a few thousand dollars to construction costs to insist that proper waterproof membranes are installed wherever the buildings are below grade, and then leaking basements and expensive retrofits, mold and mildew problems, would not be an issue two and five and fifteen years after buildings are built,” he said.
Recently McEwen’s focus has shifted to another substance that can seep in through unprotected basements; radon.
In June, McEwen appeared before Council. At that time he accused the township of failing to enforce the provisions of the Building Code Act and Building Code that is leading to 850 deaths annually due to radon gas infiltration into residential homes.
Radon and water leakage are by no means identical issues, but McEwen says that if foundations are properly constructed on clean stone and all below grade walls are protected by a seamless membrane, water will not be a problem, and in most cases will provide a diversionary path around the house for radon gas that might be present unless the levels are very high.
As well, he pointed out that some of the methods people use to remediate for water leakage into basements actually increase the potential for radon infiltration.
“Some systems involve digging trenches and drilling holes in the foundation to release water from the basement, and that is a bad idea for many reasons, but also can provide a conduit for more radon to be pulled into the house,” MaEwen said.
Township building departments have shied away from dealing with both waterproofing issues as identified by McEwen, or radon gas infiltration. McEwen has been pressing South Frontenac to adopt new practices for years and did so again last summer, when he appeared before a meeting of the Committee of the Whole in late June.
Last Friday (January 27), South Frontenac provided a written response to the concerns McEwen expressed last summer. The letter, which was signed by Mayor Vandewal and Councilors John McDougall and Alan Revill (himself a former Chief Building Official in the township), deals with both the water proofing and radon issues, which it says are distinct.
As far as the radon issue is concerned, the letter it asserts that the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) are not particularly susceptible to high radon levels. This is certainly the case when compared to areas such as Elliott Lake, Bancroft, or the Sudbury region, which the letter said are also places where there are higher levels of uranium in the rock.
The letter refers to a Health Canada report from 2012 that said that of 99 surveys done in KFL&A, 11 homes tested above the legal threshold of 200Bq/cubic metre.
“This would suggest that building officials in South Frontenac ought to gather some further information regarding levels of radon gas in single family dwellings to determine their appropriate level of enforcement. If there are no known readings above the threshold, no further action would be required, …” the letter said.
Brooks Gee tests and mitigates for radon in homes throughout Frontenac County and Kingston. He works out of Verona with a company called Mr. Radon under the local name Safe Air Solutions.
In a telephone interview this week he said that a house cannot be tested for radon until it is occupied but that since there have been so many cases of radon poisoning in Ontario, in the near future building departments may be called upon to do a final inspection for radon once a home is completed and occupied.
The cost of radon mitigation is about $2,600 although the price varies for homes that are larger or situations that are more complicated.
Tarion, the company which ensures most new construction in Ontario, will cover the cost of radon mitigation where necessary within 7 years of a new home being built.
Gee said that the assertion by the township that the local region, and South Frontenac in particular, has relatively low instances of radon in homes is simply not true.
“I see many homes with high levels of radon, up to 1,000, on the limestone in South Frontenac,” he said.
He added that in his experience there is less of a correlation between “uranium concentrations underground and radon in homes than one would expect.”
Many people think that only those homeowners who use their basements as living spaces need to worry about radon because it is exposure over time that causes problems and people who only go to the basement to check the furnace, put away a box or do laundry don’t spend enough time to be affected. But this is not always the case, according to Gee.
“While levels decrease the higher up in the house you go, when radon levels are very high in the basement they can be well above safe levels on the main floor,” Gee said. He tests for radon on the lowest level of the house that is occupied. Home radon metres, which are similar to carbon monoxide metres, are not yet available in stores in Canada (they can be ordered online) but that will change in the not too distant future.
Gee agrees with McEwen that townships will likely have to face up to their responsibilities under the building code where radon is concerned.
“The danger posed by radon is so great that it is not something anyone should ignore,” he said.
Mr. Radon runs a foundation which covers the cost of remediation for lung cancer patients and some low income families as well.
Gee will be making a presentation to local fire departments and other township officials in March.
Meanwhile the township is continuing to take a wait and see approach, as evidenced by the concluding paragraph of the letter from last week:
“While inspectors have the right to enforce any provisions of the code, it is impractical to be present for all areas of building construction. If it turns out that there are widespread areas in the Township where Radon gas exceeds the threshold, interior renovations that increase openings in the floor slab, could well contribute to higher radon infiltration but other components of radon control were likely dealt with in the original construction. Certainly the building department can support radon control through the preparation of a fact sheet and other general information sharing with homeowners and builders.”