TORONTO - When Richard Murphy is on the hunt for his prey, he doesn’t carry heavy-duty equipment on his back — just a screwdriver and flashlight.
Murphy is an operations manager for Aetna Pest Control, which for the past 30-odd years, has tracked down and fumigated pesky termites in Toronto homes.
“You can see the mud trails,” he shines a light on the bark of a tree on Crawford St. “There they are, workers. They’re fast.”
Even though each of the translucent suckers are six mm long, there is power in numbers and spread over several years they can cause houses to crumble.
And in the GTA, the problem is spreading — all the way to the 905.
“We think they arrived from the southern U.S. on ships,” Murphy says. “It seemed to have started from Toronto harbour and spread from there, 80 or 90 years ago. They’re now all around in Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo, Fergus, Innisfil, Mississauga, Scarborough and Newmarket.”
Termites are causing an estimated $120 million in property damage each year in the GTA by eating through wood structures and dropping neighbourhood property values by up to 25%, according to the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association.
“I had to advise somebody earlier this year to take their whole house down,” Murphy says. “From a termite perspective, when I filled out a report, it was in that case, very damning. In another case, a woman started removing stacks of firewood and there were tons of termites there.”
Citywide, the infestation has made its way from the north Beach area to East York, along the Lakeshore and College St. from Yonge St. to Ossington Ave…
Termites consume cellulose and don’t leave sawdust. They attack wood and need constant contact with their nest underground as well as a certain level of moisture to survive. A colony can have from 50,000 to one million workers.
“They don’t come out like ants. They actually live in the soil and come through crevices and cracks in your foundation. The biggest concern is structural damage you don’t know about,” Murphy says.
But it’s a slow process.
It often takes three to seven years — depending on how voracious the colony is — for structural damage to become apparent to the human eye.
“I see a lot of people drywall their basement and what they don’t realize is their main beam is being attacked by termites and you can’t see it,” Murphy says. “Big wood structures in and around the home and basement area are usually the first to get attacked.”
The masonry association is concerned about a review in the Ontario Building Code that would allow developers to build six-storey-high structures with wooden frames by 2014, arguing it would attract more termites, as well as bring greater risks of fire hazards.
“It’s something the consumer needs to be aware of today,” says Paul Hargest, the group’s president. But developers aren’t buying into that concern.
The Building Industry and Land Development Association doesn’t really see termites as a major problem in switching to wood frames from concrete.
“Give me a break, they’re playing the termite card?” the builder’s president and CEO Stephen Dupuis says. “Termites strike me as a ridiculous obstacle. In the interest of selling more concrete, they’re scaring people about termites. The game plan is to build a safe house that stands for a long time and there are foundation rules — termites are just scare tactics.”
There is a perception that older homes are more prone to be termite infestations — while that is true to an extent, that doesn’t exempt homes built in the past three years. It’s the foam insulation, Murphy says, that is attracting termites.
“They readily infest it,” he says. “There should be some changes (in the building code) so that termites don’t infest the foam and get into the wood framing. We also do a lot of work in big buildings downtown. No one’s immune.”
Realtor and former home inspector Steven Silva, in his blog, noted the City of Toronto used to have a map that indicated the areas dealing with infestations, but probably discontinued it because it was so difficult to track.
“Basically, all of Toronto now has termites and anywhere you buy a home you should be asking if it’s a known active area,” he says. “The map could lead people to a false sense of security. The fact of the matter is termites are in Toronto and we have to start treating our homes accordingly. The more education the public has, the better they can use it.”
Silva says he understands there is a certain stigma associated with houses that have been previous treated for insects.
“Buying homes is an emotional thing,” he says. “It’s not always based on logic. You could’ve had a home with termite activity that’s structurally sound and a home that has never had termites but has had all kinds of water damage and it might be worse.”
Douglas Wright, of the Ashdale Village Residents Association near Little India says, some parts the neighbourhood have “major termite problems” due to a lack of enforcement by health and building code officers.
“I have neighbours that collect junk,” he says. “If the wood collected contains termites then they spread. Wood products should be taken to special city dumps for inspection and proper handling. This same process would also help stop … other insect infestations. If enforcement and fines were heavy enough you would think twice.”
According to Sandy Smith, dean of U of T’s forestry faculty, termites spreading to other areas of the city and to the 905 could be attributed to people moving wood.
“There is some natural spread with warmer winters and these termite colonies are able to survive better because they don’t have to go so deep into the earth to survive, but people still move them around a lot,” she says.