New contaminated land guidelines provide first scientific advice on human health effects

A new set of guidelines for all those involved in the management of contaminated land provide the first scientifically-based framework for the assessment of risks to human health for a variety of contaminants, says the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).


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The guidelines, published by the Environment Agency and DEFRA, are to be used throughout the UK. In Scotland – a region not normally covered by Environment Agency efforts – the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has welcomed the reports, stating that they will lead to better decisions on the safe management of contaminated land.

The advice provides soil guideline values (SGVs) which indicate whether soil concentrations of contaminants above a certain level would be a risk to health. SGVs have been derived for a number of contaminants for residential, allotments and industrial land uses.

According to the Environment Agency, there are around 300,000 hectares (over 740,000 acres) in the UK that are affected to some degree by industrial contamination. In 2000 legislation was introduced under which local authorities are required to identify and deal with contaminated land.

The new advice also identifies the most likely contaminants to be found at a range of industrial sites. For example, at airport manufacturing works, the key contaminants in the ground are likely to be cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, zinc, free cyanide – the more toxic form of cyanide, nitrate, sulphate and asbestos. Meanwhile, at a timber treatment works, the contaminants to beware are chromium, copper, zinc, arsenic, boron, sulphate and asbestos.

There were a number of pollutants that were not included in the guidelines, although this does not mean that they would never be found on contaminated sites, nor that they do not pose a risk to human health under certain circumstances, says the Environment Agency. However, many occur at very low frequencies, or they do not pose a risk to sensitive environmental receptors. These include antimony, cobalt, iron, manganese, silver, chlorinated solvents, phosphates, and styrene.

The guidelines are available from the Environment Agency’s Research and Development Dissemination Centre, telephone number: 01793 865000.

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