More than thirty years after the first UK ban on brown and blue asbestos, there is an estimated half a million tons of asbestos present in around four million properties including derelict factory grounds, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). However, just how much asbestos contaminated soil remains undiscovered on a former industrial site  is not fully known until a survey is carried out.

Whenever a building development begins, asbestos awareness and a concern over the potential health risk is often raised by community residents. Even a brief exposure to airborne asbestos fibre dust can eventually lead to asbestosis disease. Those who have lived in the area for decades will often recall the site earmarked for development was once occupied by a factory or engineering works where asbestos containing materials (ACMs) were present.

In the latest case, site inspections carried out at a former railway locomotive works in Bolton found asbestos among a number of potentially harmful chemical materials. The local council have issued a statement confirming contamination in different locations across the site as a result of historical industrial activity.

Questions asked about extent of contamination

The Horwich Works was built in 1886 and continued producing railway locomotives for nearly 100 years. It includes the period between the 1950s and the 1980s, when asbestos was widely used as insulation in the construction of railway stock. In 2010, the site was proposed for a housing development to be completed by 2026. The council have assured the residents that all possible work will be carried out to remove the asbestos but questions are being asked about the extent of the contamination.

For most of the second half of the 20th century, more than five million tons of asbestos was imported for widespread industrial and commercial use. The most dangerous brown and blue asbestos was banned in the mid 1980s, and imports of white asbestos halted in 1999. When industrial premises from this period are demolished, asbestos-containing materials can still be left behind, mixed in with the soil, rubble and debris. Lack of time or carelessness could sometimes mean that demolition workers would not dispose of the asbestos material correctly or worse, asbestos contaminated soil was used as top soil or land fill.

Before any work can commence on a construction site, soil samples must be taken and analysed to determine if asbestos waste or contaminated soil is present, which could pose a potential health risk to all working at the site or to residents who live nearby.

“High risk from soil based contamination”

One concern is that building has begun in the least contaminated area, but is expected to steadily increase when work starts in the other site areas where the most amount of asbestos is present. A planning report highlights that there would be a “medium and high risk from soil based contamination, and from the presence of asbestos across the site.”

Despite fears that the disturbed asbestos will adversely affect a significant number of people, including site workers and those living in the immediate vicinity, contractors are confident that all contamination will be properly dealt with. More than a million people are exposed to asbestos every year in the UK, according to the Health and Safety (HSE), many of whom are likely to be building contractors and ground clearance staff working on the redevelopment of a former sites where asbestos was a commonly used raw material.

The legacy of Britain’s widescale use of asbestos in the railway industry may not just be found in the grounds of long-disused loco or coach works. Tragically, former rail workers are still losing their lives to the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings.

Workers not supplied with any personal protection equipment

Known asbestos ‘hotspots’, where railways depots used asbestos to insulate the walls, ceiling and floors of the carriages and buffet cars include, Manchester, Swindon, Crewe, Derby, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Bristol and York. In railway works, as well as across much of British industry, workers were not supplied with any personal protection equipment, such as a face mask, or provided with health information about the dangers of breathing in asbestos dust.

Guidance support in the remediation of asbestos in soil, made ground, and construction and demolition materials, were made by HSE and the Environment Agency (EA) in 2013. It also included recommendations on how to deal with the presence of asbestos and/or asbestos-containing materials in construction and demolition materials caused by the failure to remove asbestos from buildings and/or structures prior to demolition. The statement also recommends the method to be used by analysts in the UK for determining ‘trace’ amounts of asbestos in ground materials or soil.