Asbestos has been identified at a site earmarked to be developed as a multi-million pound McDonald’s drive-through restaurant in Tonbridge, Kent.

The Environment Agency has written an ‘asbestos awareness’ letter to the local authority, which warns them that the land – with its existing warehouses – has to be decontaminated before building can take place. A spokesman for McDonald’s has said the development would still go ahead with a planned opening for next year.

An environmental study carried out by developers on behalf of McDonald’s had previously confirmed there was “a high risk relating to the potential presence of asbestos-containing materials within the existing building fabric.” The report concludes that there are definite, potential links to contamination associated with the site, “which require further investigation” and the identified materials removed by suitably qualified personnel.

Most prone to exposure

Of the 1.8 million people HSE have said are exposed to asbestos every year in the UK, it is most likely to be building contractors and ground clearance personnel working on the redevelopment of a former asbestos-using sites who are the most prone to exposure.

Three decades after the first UK ban on brown and blue asbestos, there is an estimated four million commercial and private properties thought to still contain hidden asbestos material, including asbestos-contaminated soil, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). However, the true extent of the remaining amounts of asbestos contaminated soil in former industrial areas around Britain is largely unknown.

White asbestos fibres were still allowed to be used in building materials and were not banned in the UK until 1999. Professional construction industry organisations regularly caution 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.

Procedures for safe removal may not always follow

When any site redevelopment project begins there is always a potential risk that asbestos will be found even if the business premises, such as a factory, foundry or mill had closed fifty or sixty years earlier. The presence of asbestos on potential site redevelopments can still pose a health risk to site workers and local area residents if the materials are disturbed or not safety and securely removed. Invariably, it is the local communities in former asbestos blackspots who have suffered from higher than average mesothelioma or asbestosis-related fatalities where the ever-present health risk is felt most keenly.

Even when an asbestos survey has been carried out, as required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012), the discovery of asbestos and the procedures for safe removal may not always follow. Cases are regularly reported where there has been a failure by one company to communicate key information regarding the presence of asbestos to another contractor.

Contractors failed to put safety measures into place

When asbestos was recently disturbed during work at a central London site, three workers were exposed to the fibres over the course of several days. A court heard how the finding of a survey report, which correctly identified the presence of asbestos were not passed onto the builders. When the asbestos was uncovered, the contractors also failed to put safety measures into place to prevent exposures. Both companies were fined a total of nearly £40,000 between them for breaches under Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and compensation paid to the three workers exposed to the asbestos.

According to the HSE, nearly 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – will lose their lives every week over the next 30 years as a result of asbestos exposure.