Healthy living

Asbestos – contamination of soil

In most cases, soil contaminated by asbestos cement material (ACM) is quite safe if properly managed.

How does soil contamination occur?

A site may be contaminated by ACM through:

  • poor construction
  • handling
  • demolition
  • disposal activities
  • dumping.

Most commonly this involves:

  • asbestos cement sheets
  • pieces and fragments on or just beneath the soil surface
  • stumps of asbestos fences
  • disused asbestos piping.

Soil ACM contamination can become an issue for people who:

  • find such contamination on their property
  • are concerned about ACM on nearby properties or public areas
  • are purchasing a property which may be impacted (e.g. with a memorial on the Certificate of Title referring to managed asbestos soil contamination).

When a demolition or asbestos removal is occurring at a property it is very important that any asbestos is properly handled and does not result in:

  • air contamination
  • soil contamination.

Even if a licensed asbestos removalist is involved it is worth visually checking that no suspect fragments remain on-site afterwards.

How can asbestos affect our health?

Health effects normally only result from prolonged breathing in of airborne asbestos fibres, usually at high concentrations, such as associated with some past work activities. Examples include asbestos:

  • mining
  • processing.

Once deposited in the lungs in sufficient quantities, asbestos fibres can initiate diseases that take many years to produce major health effects including:

  • asbestosis (severe lung scarring)
  • lung cancer
  • mesothelioma (a rare and asbestos-specific cancer).

Crocidolite is usually considered the most dangerous type of asbestos.

Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time in their lives, in their:

  • workplace
  • community
  • home.

Low levels of asbestos are present in the:

  • air
  • water
  • soil.

However, most people do not become ill from this exposure.

ACM contamination of soil normally presents a very low public health risk, often comparable to background asbestos exposure.

This is because asbestos is not released from the cement matrix except through extreme physical damage or severe weathering, which might occur over time if not properly managed.

Adoption of precautionary measures and compliance with Government regulations will reduce risks even further.

What precautions should be taken?

If you find potential ACM on or in soil it is safer to assume it is, unless proven otherwise.

Laboratory analysis1 is necessary for positive identification, but any sheet cement material is particularly suspect if it is from pre-1980s structures.

All known or suspect ACM should be carefully collected, well secured in a labelled heavy duty plastic bag or wrapping and transported to:

  • a suitable landfill
  • local government asbestos collection point.

This should not be delayed especially if there is the possibility of the material being disturbed or damaged such as by:

  • traffic
  • lawn mowers.

Disposal guidance is contained in the Department of Environment Regulation asbestos – controlled waste fact sheet (external link).

Normally disposable gloves and good personal hygiene are sufficient for collecting the material. However, if there has been extensive fragmentation or the possibility of large sheet abrasion then:

  • a well-fitted P1 or P2 respirator should be worn
  • the area/material wetted
  • services of a licensed asbestos removalist sought.

Should I report asbestos contamination?

Reporting of ACM on your property to authorities is not normally necessary if:

  • the ACM is not crumbling
  • is sitting on the soil surface as pieces or sheets.

Simply take the precautions outlined above for proper disposal.

If the suspect material is not on your property then it may be best to alert the owner or other relevant responsible person to the potential problem, for instance any demolition company involved.

Contact your local government environmental health officer or Department of Health if there is a significant amount of suspect material that:

  • is or may become buried
  • may become further damaged.

They can provide advice on or help manage the issue which usually can be resolved at this stage.

In more complicated cases the site may need to be reported to Department of Environment Regulation under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003.

What about other asbestos materials?

Although ACM sheets, pieces and fragments are the most common soil asbestos contaminants, sometimes the asbestos can be present as:

  • fibrous or friable (easily broken)
  • debris, possibly from use as:
    • cladding for hot water pipes
    • the backing of some electrical circuit boards
    • vinyl tiles
    • free fibres in soil.

As these other forms may more readily release free fibre to the air if disturbed, they are of higher risk than ACM.

Therefore they need to be more carefully managed with assistance from:

  • local government environmental health officers
  • Department of Health
  • licensed asbestos removalists
  • environmental consultants.

1 Laboratories that can undertake asbestos analysis are listed in the Yellow Pages as “Analysts–Consulting &/or Industrial”

More information

For advice on asbestos site contamination, contact:

For information on site contamination in general, contact:

For more information:

  • The Department of Health’s Environmental Health Directorate on (08) 9388 4999.

Remember

  • In most cases, soil contaminated by asbestos cement material (ACM) is quite safe if properly managed.
  • When asbestos removal is occurring at a property it is very important that it is properly handled.
  • If you find potential ACM on or in soil it is safer to assume it is, unless proven otherwise.

Acknowledgements

Environmental Health


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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