More than over half of all Britain’s residential development occurs on re-used sites, which now commonly takes place on “contaminated” land.

The brownfield sites of former factories, foundries, mills and engineering workshops are often a potential health risk to both local area residents and building site / demolition workers from asbestos containing materials (ACMs) used in original building construction or later renovations.

Asbestos contaminated ground and soil of former industrial sites could yet be a further problem as they are increasingly the focus of attention by the government, which is encouraging councils to bring forward housing development on suitable brownfield sites by 2016. The extent of hidden asbestos waste and contaminated ground seems to only surface when residents living nearby to a landfill site become concerned over lorries transporting waste, which they discover includes asbestos materials.

Soil contamination long after a site was landscaped over

It has been regularly pointed out by the construction industry that any industrial or commercial sites renovated or constructed prior to 2000 must always be suspected of being built with insulation materials made from asbestos. In a number of cases,lack of asbestos awareness or the non-compliance with asbestos disposal regulations led to soil contamination long after a site has been landscaped over.

There can still be a significant health risk to any person who comes into contact with the soil, whether directly as a site contractor or indirectly as a member of the public by environmental exposure caused by asbestos fibre particles becoming airborne. Around 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos every year in the UK, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Many of the most vulnerable to exposure are known to be building contractors and ground clearance crews who work on the redevelopment of former asbestos-using sites.

Demand for soil analysis has increased

The level of risk may be better understood by referring to the Hazardous Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2005, which states that any waste having an asbestos content greater than 0.1 per cent is classified as ‘Hazardous Waste’. Asbestos content below 0.1 per cent can be classified as non hazardous unless there are other contaminants present which would classify the waste as hazardous. Asbestos fibres present in concentrations greater than 0.001per cent are considered a health risk and must be dealt with as “hazardous soils” for disposal purposes.

At the end of January 2015, the Government proposed to remove planning powers from councils that failed to put a sufficient number of local development orders (LDOs) in place. At the same time, it has also been reported that the demand for ground /soil analysis of asbestos has increased in the last 12 months.

Code of Practice Guide planned

It may not be a coincidence that later in 2015, the Joint Industry Working Group (JIWG) is planning to issue its Code of Practice ‘Practitioners’ Guide to Asbestos In Soil and Construction & Demolition Materials.

Among the subjects included will be sections on site assessment, risk assessment, laboratory analysis, health & safety and transport of impacted material. One of the stated aims of the JIWG is to promote and improve awareness of relevant issues, related to the occurrence, investigation and reversal of damage caused by asbestos in soil.

It has been estimated that suitable sites are now urgently required to be found for nearly five million new houses in England and Wales, which could see the redevelopment of nearly 164,000 acres of brownfield land.

The extent of the undetected quantities of asbestos contaminated soil remains largely unknown. Nevertheless, the asbestos-related health risk of mesothelioma or asbestosis diseases for those who come into regular occupational contact over sustained periods of time should not be underestimated.