Workplaces may face radon testing requirements

Ontario private member's bill aims to raise awareness about risks of high indoor radon levels
Monday, July 28, 2014
By Michelle Ervin

Not unlike carbon monoxide, it is colourless, odourless and tasteless. Radon doesn’t pose the same kind of immediate threat to life as carbon monoxide, but long-term exposure to dangerous levels can lead to lung cancer.

Despite this, few homeowners, and even fewer facility managers, conduct radon testing — likely because they lack awareness. Dr. Shafiq Qaadri, MPP for Etobicoke North, aims to change that with a private member’s bill he reintroduced to the Ontario legislature July 7.

If passed, the Radon Awareness and Prevention Act, 2014, would trigger changes to the Ontario Building Code and require owners of enclosed workplaces that are not projects to test for, and mitigate, high radon levels or face potential penalties. The legislation would also task the ministry of municipal affairs and housing with educating the public and establishing an Ontario radon registry mapping out measured levels across the province.

The registry would help to identify areas at highest risk of dangerous indoor radon levels, but, as Connie Choy, air quality coordinator for the Ontario Lung Association, explains, buildings of all ages, types and sizes contain some level of the naturally occurring gas.

“Radon is found everywhere in the world, because It is created from the radioactive breakdown of trace amounts of uranium in rocks and soil in the ground, which releases radon gas into the air,” Choy says. “As it gets into the air, it can seep into buildings over time and build up to high levels if there is poor ventilation in the buildings.”

Among non-smokers, long-term exposure to high levels of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in Canada, accounting for 16 per cent of all cases.

In 1988, Health Canada set as its guideline 800 Becquerels per cubic metre as the maximum acceptable indoor level of radon, based on studies of underground uranium miners who were exposed to extremely high levels of radon. Subsequent studies conclusively linking lung cancer to radon levels found in homes prompted the federal agency in 2005 to revisit its guideline, which was ultimately lowered to the current level of 200 Becquerels per cubic metre in 2007.

Outdoors, radon isn’t a concern, as it mixes with fresh air and becomes negligible in concentration.

Among the risk factors for indoor radon levels exceeding Health Canada’s guideline is how much trace uranium is in the rock and soil found underneath a building, Choy says. Other risks factors are cracks in a building’s foundation and openings such as pipes bringing water from the ground into a building.

In its current form, Bill 11 leaves it to the minister of municipal housing and affairs to determine the frequency with which workplace owners would be required to test for radon following an initial Dec. 31, 2016 deadline.

Choy says every five years is probably about right, but to follow up more frequently if a building has been found to have high levels of radon. And she advises building owners to conduct tests following renovations.

At-home test kits are easy to use, she says. Available online and in home-improvement stores, their cost ranges from approximately $35 to $80.

But, if passed, Bill 11 will require owners of enclosed workplaces to have a “radon measurement specialist,” which may be defined by the minister of municipal affairs and housing in regulations, conduct their test.

Bob Wood, president of the Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists, says building owners should ensure any specialist they engage is C-NRPP (Canadian-National Radon Proficiency Program) certified, which means the specialist has taken a course and passed a qualifying test. The specialist should also be interviewed, as any contractor would be, to ensure he or she understands what needs to be done.

Essentially, all rooms that have ground contact and are occupied for four or more hours per day need to be tested, with some exceptions.

“We don’t test in mechanical rooms, we don’t test in washrooms, we don’t test in closets,” he says. “Now, if the mechanical room is where your facilities people have their offices, or where your custodial people have their offices, and they do spend time in there, then yes, we need to test that — it’s all about occupational exposure.”

Health Canada recommends testing for a period of at least three months, as radon levels will fluctuate. A one-year test is preferable, Wood says, but, for those who wish to follow the federal agency’s guideline, the ideal time to test is during the winter, when buildings are most likely to be sealed tightest.

For radon levels in the 200 to 600 Becquerel-per-cubic-metre range, Health Canada prescribes a two-year timeframe for taking steps to mitigate the risk. For radon levels of more than 600 Becquerels per cubic metre, the federal agency shortens its prescribed timeframe for taking steps to mitigate the risk to one year.

Bill 11 would require owners of workplaces whose testing reveals radon levels exceeding 200 Becquerels per cubic metre to take “reasonable action” to reduce radon levels within a two-year window. Failing this, a person would be guilty of an offence and, if convicted, could face a maximum fine of $25,000 and imprisonment for up to 12 months. Likewise, a corporation could face a maximum fine of $500,000 on conviction.

Improving ventilation and sealing major entry routes can help to reduce radon, but, Wood says, “Sub-slab depressurization is by far and away the best system to consider.”

Choy agrees. The system, which involves drilling pipes into the ground or building foundation to draw in fresh air and flush out radon underneath the ground, can reduce indoor radon levels by more than 90 per cent, she says.

Bill 11 proposes to amend the Ontario Building Code to adopt National Building Code standards that would facilitate retrofit measures such as sub-slab depressurization in new dwellings as well as require new dwellings to be constructed in a way, and with materials, that minimize radon entry.

This is the fourth time the Radon Awareness and Prevention Act has been introduced to the Ontario legislature, having died on the order paper due to election or prorogation. The bill carried in its second reading on July 17 and was referred to the standing committee on general government. At committee stage, members examine legislation in detail and consider amendments.

The Ontario Lung Association is hoping to have input at this stage. Since the bill was originally written when the 2016 deadline was five years away, Choy anticipates compliance dates for owners of enclosed workplaces will potentially be extended before the bill is reported back to the legislature for a final vote.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.