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Friday, 26 November 2010

Go with a Mask or go with a Mo?

Since blogging earlier this month on the role of government in fashioning our communities to ensure a safe toxic free environment, I have been pondering a recent finding that Cancer is man-made after scientists found almost no trace of the disease in Egyptian mummies although evidence of some other age related diseases were found. The findings seem to indicate that tumours were rare until recent times when pollution and poor diet became issues.

Professor Rosalie David, a biomedical Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, and a colleague, Professor Michael Zimmerman, searched for evidence of cancer in hundreds of mummies, fossils, and ancient medical texts.

The evidence of cancer in ancient Egyptian texts was found to be 'tenuous' with cancer-like problems more likely to have been caused by leprosy or even varicose veins. The ancient Greeks were probably the first to define cancer as a specific disease and to distinguish between benign and malignant tumours but this was to only outwardly visible tumours on the skin, nose, and breast as it was against Greek tradition to open the body.

In the more modern times of the 17th century, the first descriptions of operations for breast cancers arose along with nasal cancer in snuff users, after the recent introduction of snuff Tobacco in 1761, and cancers such scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775. These co-inside with the rise of the industrial revolution in the very same country. The first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumours only occurred in the last 200 years or so. At first glance this seems a strong correlation but it also coincides with an increasing rate of urbanisation and life style changes and it is also unclear if this signalled a real rise in the disease, or just a greater medical knowledge.

These findings that cancer is an aliment of the modern industrialised world have been criticised by some in the cancer field like Cancer Research UK but I am not really sure what the fuss is about. I think we can all agree that natural causes like ultraviolet light and some viruses cause cancer and they probably don’t mind the implication that cancer has few inherited cause. Nor do many people dispute the role that Tobacco and lifestyle plays. It has all long been accepted that common environmental factors lead to cancer deaths including tobacco, diet and obesity, infections, radiation, stress, lack of physical activity and environmental pollutants.

It is probably more because of a perception that if the problem is mainly our modern environment rather than lifestyle driven, then the population/patients would feel defeatist as the modern world is not something we can easily avoid.

As a counter to the scientists argument is they point out that most cancer only strike after the age of 50 and this was largely the upper limit of the mummies studied. The scientists dismiss the argument that the ancient Egyptians didn't live long enough to develop cancer as they had other age-related disease such as hardening of the arteries and brittle bones.

In industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death with one in three people developing cancer during their lifetime. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare?

The absence of malignancies in mummies was interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, suggesting that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialisation and this is fuelled by the excesses of modern life. This was concluded not to be controversial, but because science is about the quest for better understanding of things to help us to choose how to live our lives today. Science still has not got to the route of all cancer and it is fair to say, not all the evidence is in yet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that cancer is a leading cause of death around the world, accounting for about 13% of all deaths in 2007. Over the last 10 years in the UK, many cancers have increased in frequency by more than 35% and it has increased by 4% for men and 3.7 for woman this year alone.
Cancers are primarily an environmental disease with 90-95% of cases due to lifestyle and environmental factors and 5-10% due to genetics. So we should still go for runs, eat healthily, stop smoking and worry less but we must also consider contamination in one’s environment.

There is a role here for legislation and the Law Society's "Contaminated Land Warning Card" issued in 2001 makes it clear that all solicitors must consider contamination on every property transaction. In England and Wales, Part 2A (the relevant legislation of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 from which this directive comes) is based on risk assessments and Health Criteria Values which describe the levels at which long-term human exposure to chemicals in soil is tolerable or poses a minimal risk. This provides a benchmark for whether land should be determined as contaminated under Part 2A. The number of sites actually addressed under the Part 2A legislation is woeful and has further, starved the industry of funding needed to drive growth and innovation in this still infant industry.

Local Authorities also regularly use the Planning System, rather than Part 2A, to encourage remediation of contaminated land. This is largely the only remediation taking place and these powers are detailed in the Planning Policy Statement 23. While these guidelines are being amended right now, the principle in them is still to stay the same, Local councils must take into consideration the quality of land, air or water and potential impacts arising from development and possibly leading to impacts on health. This is a material planning consideration, in so far as it arises or may arise from or may affect any land use.

The planning permission process starts with a Phase I desk study of land to explore qualitative data for any probable risks and if the case is made a secondary on-site survey to gather quantitative data is stipulated. This is worked out on an exposure assessment, after the hazard has been identified and characterised. From this exposure assessment the risk is characterise and ultimately a plan to manage the risk is set out. The Phase III (or remediation stage) can ultimately lead to reduction in risk from contamination, discharge of planning conditions and successful completion and sign-off of developments. The effort and time spent undertaking and completing Phase I and Phase II reports is wasted unless appropriate remediation and validation works are undertaken.

This planning permission process shifts the cost on to developers and their clientèle as the immediate beneficiaries, but the benefits are often felt by a much wider community. If government wishes to encourage localism it needs to sort out the free rider issue here so we all bear some of the fair cost of decontamination. Disparities like this slow the pace of change and leaves large amounts of contamination in our environments blighting our health. This ineptitude is politically palatable as, in the case of soil, pollution it is largely unseen and its effects can take years to manifest. As they say, out of sight, out of mind.

The polluter pays principle has not been that effective in the past as unsurprisingly many of the great polluting firms of the last 200 years of industrialisation are not around any more and those that are have powerful lawyers on hand and often big piles of money. We cannot rely on the current paradigm to tackle the masses of unproductive brownfield contaminated land. Without proper regulation and likewise some route to funding this remediation, the market will largely stock pile this land due to prohibitive solutions to their on-site contamination. Even though in many cases Phase I and II studies have already shown possible pollution linkages.

Many recently constructed properties are likely to have had contamination issues investigated, if a property pre-dates 1985, and in many cases 1990, it is likely that the land has never been investigated for contamination and might not get it under PPS 23 either. Policies like this are useful but do not get to the many sites that need to be prioritised. The criteria for remediation are left to planning officers who may or may not consult with the local contaminated land officer. Whatever it is, sites still get through and buildings go up on contaminated land while other hazardous sites get some fencing and a warning sign.

Part of the problems comes from less than perfect models like the UK’s CLEA model produced by DEFRA but also the difficulties with the science itself. The CLEA model is used for producing Soil Guideline Values (SGVs) but cannot handle things like interactions of the toxic pollutants nor is it probably calibrated right.
For example the published SGV for arsenic in a residential garden setting is 20mg/kg but in areas such as the Southwest, the Northwest and the Midlands, garden soils can naturally contain arsenic at concentrations in excess of 40mg/kg. So, the residential arsenic SGV is seen as too conservative to be practical in many cases.

In addition, DEFRA's CLEA model generates a value of approximately 1mg/kg for benzo(a)pyrene in a residential setting. Benzo(a)pyrene is a by-product of the fossil fuel burning legacy with the majority of UK soils in urban areas containing background benzo(a)pyrene concentrations in excess of 2.5mg/kg. So the CLEA approach to risk assessment is too conservative to be practical in this instance.

It must be enough to make any local civil servant want to tear out their hair but in my experience they don’t. Let’s not leave them struggling alone on our behalf with our central government. We need to send the politicians a sign that we care about the cleanliness of our environment. At the very least we want our communities not to be toxic.

My favourite part about this month is Movember, a combination of the words 'moustache' and 'November'. This is the annual month-long event of moustaches growing to raise awareness and funds for men's health issues, such as prostate and testicular cancer. A topic not nearly enough discussed amongst men for fear of getting a snigger when they enquire if you passed your medical exam. Fashionable or not a grand old tache can often be remarkable and this is what the men’s health issues really need.

If you want to help out with the spirit of the season but can’t grow a mo of your own, for physical or social reasons, could I suggest you just use a face mask as worn by fashionable surgeons. It could kill two birds with one stone, raise awareness about pollution and help keep your mo status only for those in the know.

If you have concern over any potential local land contamination you should contact your local council and address your questions to their Contaminated Land Officer.
Discoloured soil, polluted water, distressed vegetation and significant odours are some frequent things you might look out for in your soil.

Other things that might be signs of possible land contamination are:

• Evidence of abandoned storage tanks
• Stained soil, distressed vegetation, groundwater seeps & standing pools
• Pits, ponds or lagoons which may have been used for waste disposal
• Hazardous materials or oil storage drums
• Unidentifiable containers
• Friable asbestos, including wall, ceiling & pipe insulation
• Drains & sumps
• Abandoned electrical transformers & hydraulic equipment
• Artificial fill & altered topography
• Septic tanks & drain fields

Monday, 15 November 2010

A healthy environment is the bedrock of communities.

November is a great time in the UK. The season is in full change and we are reminded of the powerful effects of nature and the passing of time as the leaves fall and winter starts to nip the cheeks. The recent Halloween, with little trick-or-treaters knocking on my door, makes me want to draw on what it means to be in a local community and all the many things that go into making them work but similarly with the excitement of Diwali and bonfire night still in my mind, I really want to look forward to what kind of sparkling community we want in the future. Will we choose flash-in-the-pan or great shining sustainable communities as our target? We are all drivers of this bus and it is the latter I hear you say.

For me a community is the inter-levering of the built-environment, the natural environment and people, the conscious decision makers, but their drivers are complex socio-economic forces and thereby it all becomes political. Immediately I want to use matrices of data to quantify and build the case, to wave before the decision-makers but the issues are often too complex to summarise here and the scope of sustainable community building just too vast. As we define terms we only see more edges to our vision and start to see society reduced to simplistic webs or even worse, strands rather than the fabric that society really is. Science is only a tool to find what is true. Instead I ask you to go with your heart this time, we all instinctively tend to know what is right but doing it often comes at very real cost and very little perceived benefit.

Deepak Chopra said: "I think every human being feels a sense of connection and a strong bond with nature. It is the womb of creation. This bond can be renewed by bringing people's awareness to the beauty of our planet by reminding them that the environment is our extended body.”

Well, our body is a temple and we must give praise for the gift of life. But I wonder how healthy this body is. In the post-recession of the late noughties and the coming of the next decade we either look at the future with optimism or some terror, or at least shift uneasily between the two spectrums. While it is quite possible, that your own future seems bright and flourishing, it is quite probable that for many in the world, the future is going to be at the least very hard, and most likely too hard. This is the Malthusian conclusion of a growing population near 7 billion competing for scarce resources that cannot always be easily discovered, produced or re-used.

There is space here for design in our communities, lifestyles and products. I am enlivened by the cradle to cradle design philosophy and the increasing use of the lifetime cost concept that are both coming to the fore driven by the concerns of the public about the sustainability their ecosystem. With careful design and forethought we are able to address the conflict between consumption and the environment and not only grow as a population but still consume in a very similar way as we do now. The only thing is their will be much more sustainability built into consumption and this will come at a change in price and possibly style.

Style is fluid by definition, thriving on change, so it is only really whether cost ends up being more in the long-run than would have happened in an approaching resource crunch situation that really interests us. This is debatable and based on much economic theorising. What is at least probable is that the immediate cost of this change would be higher as unsustainable products have a built in discount in them.

This seems to go against many green measures where the easy efficiency savings available make easy cost savings. Rising costs is still probable on many products that are not mass produced to enjoy the economies of scale. But designers embrace challenges like this and still might surprise us more.

Better design can have more upfront costs and it is only with the lifetime cost method for pricing that the benefits become evident. The conclusion is certainly not true for all products and our Shift Soil Remediation technology is a case in point where a clean technological design can save money due to the fundamental sustainability principles that it was challenged to meet simply to enter the evolving clean tech industry. Specifically it’s scalability in the quantities and type of contaminants it can remediate, and its speed and flexibility of deployment. But a good product is not in a vacuum, it is both a representation of needs and a cost to a populace.

Government plays a part here, often as regulator and sometimes even a market maker if there is a strong case for the social good. Politicians must work for everyone, a situation creating competing interests, making it hard to effectively find the best way forward. To get near the heart of Government’s role it is best neither to talk about the size of government nor to flog the competing political ideologies that can get in the way of progressive pragmatic policy. I simply want to address government’s unique ability to solve free-riders because what is at least certain to me is that government needs to be effective in the spaces that they do occupy.

Free-riders are those who would not pay a fair price for their share of socially good investments like public transport or the remediation of contaminated land. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is when it leads to under production or even non-production of these governmental services. When asking ourselves what we want from government in terms of services, it is not only the filling of specific tasks but also the proper discharging of their duties with some of these duties being very clear.

Like Thomas Jefferson I personally want life, liberty and the freedom to seek out happiness. These views are largely universal and very closely reflect those criteria of the Human Development Index used by the United Nations. Life expectancy (standing for a population’s health and longevity) is there in the HDI (along with education and wealth) specifically because there can be no other utility without it. Therefore without almost all dispute government should pursue activities that sustain and prolong life as it is the most important unalienable right of all.

This might take creativity, adaption or simply the importation of some pragmatic solutions like the Mexican Waste Law which creates strict liability against owners and possessors (including operators) of a contaminated site. In the UK, as in pre 2006 Mexico, only parties held responsible for causing contamination are liable for its clean-up. As safe guards to these land possessors the law mandates disclosure of known information about site contamination (by hazardous materials or waste) from owners to potential third-party buyers or tenants and forbids transfer of a site contaminated with hazardous waste without express authorisation from the environmental ministry.

So in Mexico you do not now have to have caused the contamination to be held liable for the clean-up with the law highlighting the conflicting interests of buyers and sellers (and landlords and tenants) and is aimed at uncovering and addressing concerns over environmental contamination. This gives another valuable means to ensure our environments as the current implementation of the polluter pays principle has left us almost saturated with known toxic pollutants and has not protected our health.

We all need to engage politicians and where we can, influence them by letting them know we care about issues like a local environment free of contamination. Some other Thomas Jefferson words spring to mind here too, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock”.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

What do you know about contaminated soil?

How many people know about contaminated land or soil? Soil contamination goes far beyond a dirty patch of ummm... dirt...

In order to get a better understanding on contaminated land, we are going to go back in time a bit, a time when humanity was none the wiser. From the beginning of the industrial age, man has been polluting the air, water and soil with an array of chemicals and landfills. The bombing during World War 2 destroyed many cities and more importantly the factories and ammunition dumps. These factories poured chemicals and poison into the environment as they burst into flames. Even the lead from paint has been left in many soils where fires burnt buildings. But why should we worry about these contaminants in the soil?

Before 1995 there were no enforced laws to say that soil should be remediated or decontaminated before building a residential home. Then we need to look at the population push towards water side apartments and town houses. The banks of the Thames used to be teaming with industry of every sort as well as numerous landfills, until the property value suddenly increased. Has the soil under these developments been remediated or decontaminated or even contained? I must admit that there has been a fair amount of care taken with developing on historical landfill sites, however, some of their solutions are insufficient to say the least. Most landfill are covered with lots of topsoil and converted into golf courses and, less frequently, sports fields and parks. I did some research on a particular historical landfill site near Kew which has been converted into a number of sports fields, sports clubs, club houses and a health centre, and to top it off there were a number of different allotments dotted around the alleged site (How healthy is home grown?)

Things have however improved since, with government enforcing legislation to say that you cannot simply build on contaminated land. To which the construction industry promptly started dumping thousands of tons of contaminated soil into landfill sites. Unfortunately for those who dumped contaminated land, they are still responsible for all those contaminants recorded by the landfill and the Environment Agency. By 2006 the EU stepped in with plans for a more strict approach to removal of contaminated land. Today all soil that enters a landfill has to be treated to a certain level before it can be dumped. Additionally the UK government are constantly increasing landfill tax (Currently facing a £48 per ton charge for 2010).

This gets me onto the reason for this sudden attention to contaminated land. The first and biggest problem is that contaminated land could mean contaminated water. There are a wide variety of contaminants that you can find in our soils besides the obvious glass and plastic. Amongst the worst are Asbestos, Arsenic (found in most UK soils naturally) and Cyanide all of which can have pretty immediate results. We then get onto mutagenic and carcinogenic contaminates like Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH).

But how do these contaminates affect you since you live in a house with a pretty thick layer of concrete and tile, wood or carpet between them. Well you need to think deeper than that, and a little further back... back to when you were a kid playing in the dirt, playing football on pitches, or in the park... This is direct contact, that can result in terminal diseases. We then need to look directly under your house, and it is here that we see your water pipes... your essence of life. Over time hydrocarbon contamination has a corroding effect on metal, plastic and concrete, and as a result, you have these contaminants permeating your water pipes and gradually contaminating your water supply.

So this gets me back to my first point. Why do the public not know more about the health dangers and environmental affect of contaminated land. Yes, the government are making a point of developing 60% of all new developments of brownfield land (land that has been previously developed and potentially contaminated) in the UK, and 80% in London, but how does that protect those who have their home situated on contaminated land? How can you feel secure not know the history of your property, your parks, your sports fields, your schools, your workplace... the list goes on. Cancer has recently been linked directly to contaminated land ( How can we turn a blind eye to our children's future.

Shift Soil Remediation LLP ( is dedicated to reducing the effect of contaminated land, by doing our part in decontaminating contaminated soils around the UK and the world. We hope to make your back garden and further a safer place.