Contaminated land

The UK’s rich industrial heritage has resulted in a legacy of land contamination caused by industrial development. Contaminated land can cause harm to human health, water supplies, natural habitats and property but not all contamination poses problems.

The Health and Environment section of Tower Hamlets Council has developed a strategy to identify areas of contaminated land in the borough.

Frequently asked questions

Questions and answers for homeowners whose properties will be investigated further:

1. How does the council know that my property could have potential contamination issues?

Since 2000, the council has been investigating all records relating to industrial or other potentially contaminating land uses dating from 1869. This research has been plotted onto a current map of the borough.

2. Why has the council started to collect soil samples now?

We wanted to target resources at those sites most at risk, which meant that we had to identify and prioritise sites in the borough. This has now been done.

3. Because my property is being investigated further does this mean that it is the most contaminated?

No. It is very important to note we have no evidence that there is any contamination at any of the sites identified. We are investigating, as a precautionary measure, places where industries may have left contamination.

We have prioritised sites for investigation where previous industries were most likely to leave contaminants and where people are most likely to be coming into contact with the site.

4. Is there a danger of harm to my family or myself?

At this stage, the council has only identified your property as being a site where there may be a potential problem. There is no cause for alarm.

We are taking a precautionary approach and is responding to information which indicates that there may be soil contamination. The only way to confirm whether there is an actual risk on the site is to take some samples of garden soils and see whether they contain elevated levels of contaminants. This is the stage we are at now.

5. What does the sampling of soil involve?

The sampling of soils would involve a member of Tower Hamlets staff and an independent environmental consultant from Parsons Brinckerhoff visiting your house during the day and taking one to three samples of soil with an auger (a small boring instrument about the size of a wheelbarrow) from the surface soil of the garden.

Each sample will be made up of about 500g of soil (about half a bag of sugar). The sampling process is likely to take about 20-30 minutes. The testers will of course take care to leave the garden in the same condition as it was before their visit.

6. What happens to the soil samples that have been taken from the garden?

The samples will be sent to a laboratory for analysis. The analysis will look for substances which are likely to have been present on the site when it was an industrial site. The results of analysis should be available between 14-21 days after they have been given to the laboratory.

7. Will I be able to see the results?

Of course.

8. What happens if the results show evidence of contamination?

It does not necessarily mean that there is a problem even if levels are higher than typically expected in garden soils. If this is the case the council will carry out a more detailed risk assessment of the site.

This would look at whether the substances detected could pose a significant risk to health, how much of the area was affected, and what the course of action needs to be to solve any problem.

If the sample results do not pose any significant risk, no further action will be required.

9. What happens if there is still a possible problem?

If a detailed assessment confirms that there is problem on the site, the site will need to be appropriately cleaned up. This often involves the removal of the surface cover of soil and the replacement of clean soil material. In some cases it may be possible to clean up the soil on site, without the need to remove it.

10. Who will pay for the clean-up of the site?

The law says that the “appropriate person” should pay for the clean up of the site and pay any compensation for any effects that the clean-up has had on the property. The person who pays for the clean up is likely to be either the polluter, the developer of the site or, if neither of the above can be found, the owner of the site.

11. Does the council know what sort of contaminants might be present in my garden?

We know what industry was previously on the site and we have obtained information about the types of contaminants associated with this sort of industry from the Department of Environment. We will check for these contaminants in particular when we are testing your property.

12. If I am moving home how will I know if other properties have any risk of contamination?

If a site is found to be contaminated, then its details will be placed on a public register. This will apply only to sites where a significant level of contamination is found that needs to be cleaned up. Sites which are sampled and no further action is necessary will not be placed on the register.

Details of the remediation work will also be placed on this register so that the full picture about the site can be obtained and you can make an informed choice about buying a property.

13. Will it affect any future sales of my property?

It is not possible for the council to answer this question. However, as part of the conveyance process you will be asked if the property has been determined as Part IIA Environmental Protection Act 1990 contaminated land. The Act defines contaminated land as any site on the public register.

However, as you will see from Q12, the register will also contain information about the site clean-up. Therefore, whilst it is possible that some people may be put-off by previous contamination, it is equally possible that evidence of site clean up will reassure them.

14. Should I visit the doctor?

Not unless you feel ill. We have no evidence of contamination so there is nothing that a doctor could be expected to do for you.

15. Should I still use the garden?

Even if land has been found to have raised levels of chemicals, it does not automatically mean that the chemicals in the soil will affect your health. The chemicals would need to be harmful to humans, in sufficient quantity to be harmful and at or near the surface for you to come into contact with them.

You should continue to use and enjoy your garden and open spaces as normal. But please remember that it is always important:

  • to wash your hands after working or playing in the garden, and before handling food
  • that vegetables grown in a garden are washed thoroughly before eating

16. What should I do now?

Whilst we understand that raising the possibility of contamination may cause some concern and uncertainty, it is important to remember that this is a precautionary approach and there is no cause for alarm.

As soon as the council has more information about your property it will contact you.

Useful links and organisations

Neighbouring local authority contaminated land strategies:

Related services