Tuesday, June 18, 2024

We tested landscaping soil on sale in Sydney stores for asbestos – it came back positive

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Asbestos has been found in recycled soil fill for sale in New South Wales landscape and garden stores, more than a decade after investigators first raised concerns about contamination.

Guardian Australia bought four products at Sydney landscape supply shops and had samples analysed by accredited private laboratories.

Two did not comply with state regulations on pH levels and one was found to contain asbestos fibres.

One of the products that passed the laboratory tests contained large physical contaminants including glass and a metal screw.

The results prompted the state’s environment regulator to express concern about the “poor product and levels of non-compliance we are seeing in the industry”. In January Guardian Australia revealed that widespread breaches by waste recycling facilities meant potentially contaminated product might have been applied in the past decade to land across the state, including at childcare centres, residential areas, schools and parks.

Jason Scarborough, a former senior waste compliance officer at the NSW Environment Protection Authority, who took the samples sent for testing, said the product containing asbestos posed a potential health hazard, another would be “unsuitable for any sort of horticultural use” and he also would not use the product that had “serious visible physical contamination”.

‘Three out of the four products, I wouldn’t use,’ Scarborough said. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

The products bought from each store were marketed as crusher dust, recycled turf underlay, recycled soil and budget underlay – all names that can be used to sell the recycled residues from construction and demolition sites known as “recovered fines”. The visual appearance and descriptions of the products were also consistent with recovered fines.

The products are used at public places such as parks and schools, as well as being sold directly to consumers for back yard landscape purposes such as a foundation for turf, backfill for a retaining wall, or as a base for pavers. An estimated 700,000 tonnes of the product is applied to land in NSW each year.

A metal screw found in recycled soil fill sent for independent testing. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
A large piece of glass found in one of the soil fill samples. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Testing the samples

Guardian Australia bought products from four Sydney landscape stores. Scarborough took samples from each product in accordance with accepted scientific standards and sent them to two private laboratories accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities.

The two EPA investigations revealed previously by Guardian Australia, one in 2013 and one in 2019, found facilities producing recovered fines were breaching regulations intended to limit the spread of contaminants, including lead and asbestos.

Scarborough was the EPA official who led the 2013 investigation. He spoke publicly in February about his concern that the regulator had failed to act on known problems in the waste sector.

The laboratories each tested a portion of the Guardian Australia-purchased samples against the legislated thresholds for contaminants set out in the regulations for recovered fines. They include physical contaminants such as plastics, hard metal and glass, chemical contaminants such as lead, zinc and nickel, and other toxins such as pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls. The laboratories also tested the products for asbestos but this is not a specific requirement under the recovered fines regulations.

Soil fill made from recovered fines is heterogeneous. Even if it has been well processed, the composition can be variable, meaning one portion of a sample won’t necessarily have the same concentration of contaminants as another portion.

Scarborough prepares to take a sample of soil fill. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The crusher dust was found by one lab to contain a “bundle” of asbestos fibres, meaning it is considered asbestos waste under NSW laws and must be disposed of.

That product and the recycled soil were found by both labs to have breached the legislated range for pH levels set by the Environment Protection Authority.

The recycled turf underlay contained visible physical contaminants including electrical wire, large pieces of glass and a metal screw. But both the commercial labs found it complied with the legislated thresholds for the full suite of contaminants.

The samples of the budget underlay were given a pass by the labs against every aspect of the regulations and also did not have the large visible contaminants.

“Based on those four products, one of them potentially poses a health risk because it contained asbestos fibres,” Scarborough said. “Another would be unsuitable for any sort of horticultural use.

“Fifty per cent are not compliant with an aspect of the [recovered fines] order and another had serious visible physical contamination that wasn’t reflected in the laboratory results.

“So the maths there is 75% – three out of the four products, I wouldn’t use.”

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Poor documentation increases risk to consumers

The results showed no traces of pesticides or of polychlorinated biphenyls, which are potentially carcinogenic chemicals. All samples tested were within the limits for heavy metals such as lead.

But Scarborough said he would exercise caution in interpreting those findings because of the variable nature of the material.

“The portion the lab took to analyse may not be representative of the whole, which is really the fundamental problem with this stuff,” he said.

But he said this aspect of the tests did seem to show an improvement on samples the EPA tested in the 2013 investigation, which he said detected regular breaches of thresholds for lead, zinc and copper in particular.

The 2013 report recommended that soil products made from recovered fines should be used only for things such as pipe bedding and deep earth works where the risk of human contact was low. It recommended the products not be sold by third parties such as landscapers because poor documentation made it difficult to follow the chain of custody for the material, and landscape suppliers were not necessarily equipped to explain the nature of the product to their customers.

Guardian Australia’s tests were limited to stores that sold the products in small quantities – most recovered fines products are sold in bulk.

The original source of the material and the recycling facility that processed it was not contained in the product information for any of the soil fill bought by Guardian Australia.

One of the bags of soil fill from which samples were taken. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Under the recovered fines regulations, the waste facilities that process the material are required to give the purchaser a statement certifying they have met all of the legislated requirements for the product as well as a copy of the regulations or a link to where the purchaser can find that information.

But those rules only apply to the processors. That information often won’t reach the consumer who buys the product from a third party such as a landscaper. None of the landscape stores Guardian Australia bought the products from provided that information, nor were they required to.

“This is where it breaks down,” Scarborough said. “That information may have been provided to the landscape stores but it wasn’t provided to you when you bought the stuff.

“Realistically, the person using the material is the most important in this supply chain, because they are the ones that are going to be exposed to the product.”

An EPA spokesperson said the regulator was “concerned by reports of suspected contamination of recycled products and to investigate this matter further we would require more information”.

They said a compliance campaign following up on the 2019 investigation had found “asbestos in stockpiles at several facilities resulting in prevention notices being issued to stop the distribution of this material”.

“We will shortly be taking regulatory action as a result of this compliance campaign,” they said.

In 2022 the EPA abandoned a proposal to tighten the regulations for producers of recovered fines products after pressure from the waste industry.

An EPA spokesperson said the regulator was now considering changes to those rules and was consulting the industry.

They said any reforms would be informed by a review under way by the NSW chief scientist into the management of asbestos in products made from recycled construction and demolition waste.

As part of that review the office of the chief scientist is examining approaches to asbestos management taken in other Australian jurisdictions and whether a “tolerable threshold level” can be set for asbestos in waste intended for beneficial reuse.

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