Asbestos contaminated land has been approved by a local council for the building of more than one hundred residential properties. The construction of 74 three-bedroom and 42 four-bedroom homes, provisionally agreed by Liverpool Halton councillors, is planned to take place on the remaining parts of a former Turners Asbestos Cement works.

It is thought that more than 50 per cent of all Britain’s residential development occurs on sites once occupied by asbestos works. A recurring problem has often been an issue with either limited asbestos awareness, neglect or non-compliance with asbestos disposal regulations, which leaves the ground and undersoil contaminated long after a site has been landscaped over.

The property developers say that the last site occupiers had previously carried out a survey in other areas of the site, which removed all asbestos materials and demolished most of the buildings. However, they also confirm that the ground now earmarked for development is contaminated with asbestos. The proposal for making the land safe is to bury the affected areas deeper into the ground. Any “trace” levels detected will be covered with a synthetic ‘geotextile’ fibre layer plus an additional metre of clean soil on top. The levels of asbestos fibre dust is to be monitored throughout specific working areas on site and on the perimeters.

Potential health risk to both local area residents

The 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. During the peak years of use in the UK as a low cost insulation product, around 170,000 tons of asbestos was annually imported from the 1940s until the late 1970s and early 80s. As a result, huge quantities of asbestos-containing waste was produced by the manufacturing process, which could be dumped on factory premises or removed to landfills.

Asbestos cement products started to be produced at the Widnes site from as early as 1907 and continued under different owners right through the twentieth century until 1999, when a final ban on all asbestos use was introduced. Plans to redevelop the site were originally approved in 2010, which immediately drew protests from the local community concerned about the potential health risks of disturbing asbestos-contaminated soil.

The local residents also pointed out that they had been “kept in the dark” about three previous planning applications and requests for information had remained unanswered. Furthermore, neither a formal community consultation had taken place nor an assessment carried out on the environmental impact. Historical records showed that the site had been used for asbestos waste disposal, a small part of which was “cleaned up” by the council and then sold to retail developers.

High number of mesothelioma cases who live nearby

The concerns over potential environmental exposure are further supported by new research, which highlights the continuing high number of mesothelioma cases among residents who live nearby to asbestos-using sites long after the factory has ceased production. A European study found that at one asbestos cement plant in Italy, the exposure risk was significantly higher and was seen to increase over time. An estimated 200 cases of pleural mesothelioma had been diagnosed in residents over a five year period up to twenty years following closure of the plant.

Among the highest numbers of identifiable asbestos-related disease and mesothelioma fatalities, further research has also found that the majority were centred around asbestos cement plants and shipbuilding dockyards. There was also an increased risk of ‘environmental’ exposure indicated by the higher incidence of mesothelioma cases not directly linked with occupational contact with asbestos. Researchers point to the possibility of asbestos being released into the environment in waste material.

In Britain, the location of the major manufacturing plants involved with asbestos based products was widespread. Factories using asbestos in the production of cement, friction materials, insulating materials and textiles ranged from Stirling, Livingston and Glasgow in Scotland, Durham, West Auckland, Hebden Bridge, Trafford park and Widnes in the north of England to Tamworth and Birmingham in the Midlands, Bristol in the west and Sidcup, Slough and Woking in the south.