It’s always a stark reminder of just how much asbestos still lays hidden in properties around the UK when reports of flytipping highlight a quantity of broken up asbestos amongst the discarded waste. At the end of 2016, The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stated that the “number of recorded fly-tipping incidents had reached the highest level since 2010” – up from 900,000 incidents in 2014-15 to 936,000 incidents in 2015-16 –  a third consecutive annual increase.

In just the first few months of 2017 alone, the illegal dumping of waste has continued right across Britain. Public asbestos awareness was given its most recent nudge when a pile of open black bin liners containing concrete and plaster, as well as material thought to be asbestos, were flytipped in a Dartmoor beauty spot.

Asbestos fly-tipping has doubled over the past nine months

Weeks earlier, residents of a community near Cardiff, South Wales were alarmed to find a “lorry worth of rubbish”, also believed to contain asbestos, illegally dumped on an access bridge over a main road, described as a popular shortcut for residents. Residents say that the area has been previously targeted for flytipping, with construction waste found in nearby woodlands. Although the entire highway had been blocked, the flytipped rubbish was left for nearly a week.

Illegally dumped waste was left for about three weeks on a main highway, in another recent flytipping incident, which occurred in Hertfordshire. Incredibly, each day more waste appeared to be added to the mountain of rubbish, which the local council said could not be immediately moved because of the possible presence of asbestos. Meanwhile in the north of England, asbestos fly-tipping has doubled over the past nine months, according to Northumberland County Council. Most of the asbestos is old corrugated roof sheeting, which has been found dumped in several areas around the county, from Berwick to Alnwick and Bedlington to Hexham.

DEFRA fly-tipping statistics for England show that nearly half of all incidents occur on highways, nearly a third consist of a ‘small van load’, around two thirds household waste, and the number of incidents recorded in one year equalling one for every 40 households in England.

Serious risk of “environmental” exposure to the public

It is regularly heard in the courts that men are observed simply ripping out boards, panels or roofing without any safety precautions. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, there are strict procedures for controlled asbestos removal and disposal, which involves secure containment by careful double bagging and dust suppression. Even if the materials were found in good condition, the “rough” handling causes fibre particles to become airborne with potential risks to the waste removers – who are often not wearing suitable protection – and to others in close vicinity.

The waste asbestos is then simply removed by a vehicle and often illegally dumped just a few miles from the original site. Fly-tipped asbestos poses a serious risk of “environmental” exposure to members of the public. The asbestos fibre content of roof sheeting, for example, is around 10 to 15 per cent, and the dust particles are easily released into the surrounding atmosphere. Waste asbestos must always be removed by a licensed asbestos contractor and sent directly to an official landfill.

It’s always possible that a property owner or even a building contractor can completely fail to recognise that the materials they are removing contain asbestos. A survey commissioned by the Health & Safety Executive HSE in 2014 found that only 1 in 7 tradesmen said they knew that asbestos may still be present in properties built up to 2000. More than 8 in 10 tradesmen did not know that white asbestos insulation continued to be installed by the building industry after the 1985 ban on using brown and blue asbestos products.

Individuals determined to carry on illegally flytipping

Fly-tipping is a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £50,000 or 12 months imprisonment if convicted in a Magistrates’ Court. The offence can attract an unlimited fine and up to 5 years imprisonment if convicted in a Crown Court. There are also a number of other possible penalties, including fixed penalty notices between £150-£400 (introduced in England from 9 May 2016).

Unfortunately, stiffer sentences will not deter those individuals determined to carry on illegally flytipping. Recently, one fly-tipper admitted dumping 36 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated rubble on a street in east London, which resulted in the road being closed and buses put on diversion. Also, the entrance to a children’s riding stables was blocked.

Illegal dumping of household waste containing asbestos will continue as long as the insulating materials remain hidden or managed within a building. At least half a million properties, both private and public are said to still contain the deadly health hazard. The Land Registry have also said that 55 per cent of all industrial / commercial properties in the UK could still contain a white asbestos cement roof, which could end up dumped on a British roadside.