The factories where asbestos was used may no longer exist but the presence of the potentially fatal fibres can live on in the waste grounds of former sites. In some cases, asbestos can still be found half a century or more after a factory, foundry or mill closes when a redevelopment project begins.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate there could still be around four million commercial and private properties containing hidden asbestos material, which could also include asbestos-contaminated soil. Thirty years after the first UK asbestos ban, the extent of the remaining amounts of asbestos contaminated soil in former industrial areas around Britain is, however, largely unknown.

An undetected presence on former asbestos-using sites can still pose a serious health risk to both nearby and local area residents. It’s not surprising that asbestos awareness to the ever-present health risk is felt most keenly by communities who live in a former asbestos blackspot where a higher than average mesothelioma mortality still remains.

Human toll of “environmental exposure”

When local residents spotted asbestos fibres near to an east London regeneration site where an asbestos processing plant once stood fifty years earlier, concern was quickly raised. Many in the community remember the clouds of asbestos-dust released into the atmosphere around the site for more than five decades and the human toll of “environmental exposure” to the toxic fibres. Around thirty years after the factory’s closure, nearly 250 people living within the local area are thought to have lost their lives to mesothelioma within a twenty five year period.

A spokesman for the development management team said there was “ no cause for concern” as it was “quite common” to uncover asbestos during regeneration projects. The area is to undergo an asbestos survey and any waste discovered will be taken away to “elsewhere on the site” or permanently removed. A report to confirm that the site is “suitable for residential use” will be issued once the survey is completed and the results known.

As a result of environmental exposure, new research highlights the continuing high number of mesothelioma cases among residents who lived nearby to asbestos-using sites long after the factory has ceased production. A European study found that at one asbestos cement plant, the exposure risk was significantly higher and was seen to increase over time.

Higher odds ratio

The study reveals that the odds ratio, which measures the link between an asbestos exposure and an outcome, which leads to mesothelioma ranged from 4.4 to 62.1. Increased exposure over time resulted in a higher odds ratio. Those individuals never exposed to asbestos at their workplace showed a mesothelioma ratio of 3.8 to 23.3, while residents living close by to asbestos using industries showed a ratio of around 2.

The researchers conclude that while the risk of mesothelioma increased with cumulative asbestos exposure, the results also indicate the risk associated with common sources of environmental exposure, especially after industrial asbestos use had ceased. 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 cement plant.

In April 2010, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) reported that the testing of soils for asbestos had become the most regulated type of testing a laboratory can provide to the contaminated land sector.