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The dangers of asbestos in soil and made ground

The risk to public health from asbestos comes not only from inside our homes and commercial buildings. The presence of asbestos in the soil poses a significant risk to anyone involved in the construction of new housing developments, as well as to those who purchase new-build properties – particularly those built on brown field sites.

The government’s wish to provide more housing in the UK has resulted in the use of former industrial land for residential purposes, but the likelihood of encountering asbestos and other contaminants in the soil left behind after demolition of the old buildings is high.

Due to its insulating and fire-retardant properties, asbestos was widely used in construction prior to 2000. It was commonly found in partition walling, lagging for pipes, central heating boilers, and fire doors, amongst many other commonly-used products.

Asbestos found in the soil of a new housing development

A housing development in the Norfolk town of North Walsham has recently been in the news. Many of the houses have been completed and already reserved, but traces of asbestos have been found in the soil.

One prospective purchaser pulled out of their deal because of the potential risk to health, although the developer stated that the asbestos traces found were minute. Development Director, Simon Bryan, said:

“It is not uncommon to find pollutants on these types of developments, and in this instance we found areas with minute traces of asbestos….. Once the work has been completed, the development will be assessed and approved by the relevant local authorities …”

Remediation works to remove asbestos

The degree of risk to public and worker health varies according to individual locations, and can depend on a range of factors, including:

  • The type of asbestos-containing material present in the soil – insulation, cement, or lagging, for example
  • Its current condition – whether it is damaged or has been broken up
  • Whether the soil is wet, damp or dry, and its consistency

The danger is exacerbated by the fact that asbestos dust and fibres are not always readily visible, and can be easily inhaled. In the case of the Norfolk housing development, a routine inspection led to the discovery of asbestos contamination – an inspection process that is particularly important where brown field sites are involved.

Reusing brown field land

It is understandable that the government wants to use brown field land to ease the housing situation, but according to the Department of the Environment around 85% of this type of land is potentially contaminated by asbestos.

The Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) has published a guide for identifying and managing asbestos in soil and made ground – the first of its type in the industry.

With written best practice procedures to follow, hopefully the issue of asbestos-contaminated soil will be dealt with effectively in the future, and without undue risk to public health and safety.