In recent months, a spate of reports have appeared across Scotland from communities concerned about proposed developments of old industrial and other sites for new homes, schools and workplaces. In addition, there have been a number of cases of communities questioning the safety and environmental damage done by sites remediated a number of years ago.
Each time, issues of trust, transparency and communication have been raised by communities with regulators and others despite previous 'public consultations' on the sites . These communities are not homogenous identities and nor can the 'public' ever be easily defined and engaged. Some individuals, communities and interest groups may favour a development and others may oppose it.
Often, however, Local and Central Government officials and commercial bodies acknowledge there have been many problems in the way they have addressed community and 'public' concerns about pollution problems generally including remediation projects. So they flag the need to improve community communications and ensure trust in the future but it does not happen. Why?
The default position of those in control of the land and site assessments, developers and their environmental advisors has usually been that communities simply did not understand risk. There is no acknowledgement that the communities or members within those communities might understand the risks very well and reject the official assessments or that the communities might on occasions use different criteria to the officials and developers and have a different risk assessment. There is no recognition that a planned extensive consultation process on such sites is needed rather than a reactive piecemeal approach to each proposed site. In some cases, proposals for using remediated sites for schools or homes have emerged at just one public meeting with minimal public engagement thereafter with people living in the area and the wider community.
The official view is that risk assessments of reclaimed land that have been done to approve site development are always thorough, always rely on the latest science, always build in huge safety margins and so should automatically allay any fears about safety whether for private house purchasers or other users of the land. There is no acknowledgement that the regulation of remediated sites across the UK has not recently been thoroughly and independently scrutinised by those outside the system and such scrutiny published in peer reviewed scientific journals. It is simply assumed that everything is working well.
At the same time, effective and meaningful engagement with communities on industrially contaminated sites (ICSs) and other pollution issues is undoubtedly difficult and challenging. It does require significant time and resources as well as soft skills to be deployed. Occupiers of remediated sites should, it is argued, accept the official risk assessments, without any 'buyer beware' caveats or questioning. It seems unlikely that such an argument would be accepted readily by many doing the risk assessments if they were buying a house, sending a child to school or working in a building on a remediated site. Effectively risk assessments are usually done on communities as well as for them by professionals and, unsurprisingly, communities may contest the outcomes and processes of the risk assessment.
Good practice in public health may be heavily constrained by major issues relating to resources and time and prioritisation. However, when communities are neglected, the costs may be high in terms of physical ill-health and stress, and hence high in terms of time, resources and loss of community confidence.
Good practice in addressing community concerns about pollution has been advocated for decades but often ignored by policy-makers and health professionals alike. The rhetoric of engagement, communication and transparency may be widely used but practice is lacking. Good practice should aim to identify environmental concerns by engaging communities effectively and ensuring those communities are given opportunities to address their environmental concerns based on both impacts and a 'perceived urgency for action'. It may also involve communities participating in testing environments themselves. The European Union in 2019 supported work to develop a participatory science toolkit to address pollution.
There are major economic and political pressures to recover, where possible, land contaminated by hazardous substances sometimes called 'industrially' contaminated sites (ICSs): so called brownfield sites in the USA. In the UK, including Scotland, not all brownfield sites are contaminated by industrial activity or landfill and are normally described as those that have 'previously been developed or used for some purpose which has ceased'.
However, de-industrialised Scotland contains many ICSs, often in areas of high population density along with a significant number of landfill sites. There are pressures to build new homes – especially affordable ones – schools, colleges and workplaces on brownfield sites including ICSs because of the reported lack of suitable available land, the cost of land and a reluctance to build on the 'green belt'. There are also laudable pressures to make sites safe and so protect public health. Sometime these pressures conflict and cannot always be easily resolved.
The position is further complicated by other factors, explicit and implicit. Residential and commercial property companies aim to make and maximise their profits through economical land purchase and building on brownfield sites including ICSs. The Economist
noted in 2019 that, whilst many people struggle with high UK housing costs, housebuilders are cashing in.
Commercial environmental consultancy companies, including those working on ICSs and their remediation, make profits too as well as providing jobs. It was estimated in 2019 that the UK environmental consulting market would reach a size of £2bn by 2022. Contaminated site assessment and remediation consulting, according to Environmental Analyst, makes up the fourth largest service area in the UK's current £1.8bn environmental consultancy industry. That is 12% and around £220m in market revenues per year.
These groups may be presented as benefiting 'the common good', but this is not always the case and they may be driven far more by economic self-interest which is not a legal or ethical necessity. Where there's dirt, there is money, but whether the money or community concerns shape or should shape developments is the key question.
Social housing associations and others need to build homes that are available and affordable in de-industrialised areas. Yet decisions about using remediated ICSs for housing, the alternative non-ICS sites and the reasons for the high cost of land, and the existing lack of affordable housing or failure to use existing housing stock better, rarely merit detailed discussion and consideration.
The position is further complicated by reports, linked to climate change threats, indicating recycled and reused buildings rather than demolished ones – that can create additional pollution through disturbance of sites – is the way to go to reduce UK's carbon emissions. In England, the UK Government announced that 73 councils were to trial 'brownfield registers', that will grant planning permission 'in principle' for homes to be built on derelict and underused land.
Local authorities, including those in Scotland, are often compelled to generate income and cut budgets by selling land and sometimes cut staff and services due to the UK Government's austerity programmes. Budgets cuts can impact on the number, resources and expertise of public health and environmental health staff available to work on UK brownfield sites, their risks and their remediation.
The UK Government too may pursue policies of deregulation, weaker regulation through 'better regulation and softer regulation' that are ideologically driven and may affect both assessments of health and environmental impacts. Some of these policies have affected agencies and policies in Scotland.
The Scottish Government record on protecting both its environmental and health standards is significantly better than the UK's, despite the UK Government still controlling and cutting back on UK-wide public expenditure over more than a decade. However, the Scottish position on dealing with ICSs and a number of other environmental and health topics has been far from ideal over several administrations. There have been several important and promising Scottish initiatives but they appear either to have fizzled out or have been ignored. Surprisingly, after early commitments in Scotland to environmental justice, a key element for communities' interest in and action on ICSs from a health and environment perspective, the principle appears to have vanished de facto from both health and environmental agencies' agendas.
The Contaminated Land Advisory Group (CLAG), set up in February 2015, provided a forum for dialogue and discussion between Scottish ministers and representatives from the contaminated land community. It did not appear to engage with communities themselves as its members came from governmental, professional and industry groups, and it seems to have effectively ended its work in 2016. The Scottish Environmental Protection Act dealing with the identification and treatment of contaminated land, in force since July 2000, requires local authorities to identify contaminated sites within their area and take steps to remove them. However, registration of such sites by local authorities also appears patchy and problematic according to industry sources.
There has been a view, globally and within various parts of the UK, that the following approaches apply to ICSs that have been or are proposed to be remediated. The view is that the major health and environment problems with remediated sites exist only in low- and medium-income countries. Yet evidence indicates there are still significant public concerns, if not potentially serious public health problems, with such remediated sites in Scotland. The theory is as follows:-
(1) The industrial contamination on land for remediation has been comprehensively and fully documented over its life cycle if on a factory or landfill site.
(2) The contaminated land has been registered in a local authority. In Scotland only 25% of its 32 local authorities had entries on their contaminated land registers.
(3) The risk assessments for industrially contaminated land have large safety margins built in and will ensure there is minimal risk to public.
(4) The latest research on hazardous substances has been used to assess sites including mixtures and low-level exposures to endocrine disruptors and other substances and complex and cumulative exposures.
(5) There is good epidemiological evidence about the possible impact of such sites and good exposure assessments.
(6) There is rigorous independent and peer-reviewed and published assessments of the Central Government and Local Government and industry environmental consultant regulatory regimes and their operation.
(7) The hazards of climate change in terms of extreme weather – flooding, soil erosion, high and low temperatures – on remediated sites have all been fully researched and factored.
(8) Materials used on site can be evidenced as durable over the life of the building which may be beyond 60 years and safety data sheets on all substances used on site are available to property purchasers as well as local authority staff.
(9) Users and homeowners on remediated ICSs are able to exercise informed consent on purchasing, occupying and using such sites in terms of hazards and related risk that have been identified on the site.
10) Public health, environmental health and planning staff have all necessary information to assess any health impact concerns raised by communities about existing radiated sites and proposed new sites.
11) Public health and other staff are able to ensure effective engagement with vulnerable communities through an appropriate skill set (technical and social) that ensures proper and meaningful community participation (home or workplace owner, user).
The practice looks rather different. The gaps in information, the lack of recent and rigorous research on contaminated sites, the absence of transparency on information that is available, the tendency of public health professionals to offer assurances of safety and even absolute safety without making evidence available, the sometimes poor communication and public engagement skills of health and Local Government professionals at various levels dealing with contaminated sites often creates significant and justified public anxiety which is itself an adverse health effect of flawed approaches. Such anxiety may be unfounded and could be removed if better policies and practices were followed.
What was acceptable to build in the early 2000s on brownfield contaminated sites now looks like a riskier proposition. More sophisticated multi-media exposure assessments are available for dealing with contaminated sites. There is a better understanding of, and emphasis on, long-term lower level complex exposures in human health risk assessment, the suitability of the local situation, background exposures, combined exposure and harmonisation of human health risk assessment tools.
Understanding long-term failures of membranes in sealing in contaminants to prevent groundwater and other contamination is important. Past declines in the effectiveness of landfill controls and sometimes more recent failures are also increasingly recognised as threats to health.
To achieve proper brownfield site risk assessment, public and private bodies require the latest toxicological research applying the best possible control and exposure standards for carcinogens, reproductive health hazards, developmental hazards and mixtures. This would include assessing the likely 'exposome' – a complete environmental exposure assessment – to pollutants as well as using cumulative environmental health impacts risk assessments. The science should be combined more directly with engaging communities likely to be affected or already affected by building, consistent with environmental justice principles and transparency. Such steps would immediately ensure greater trust.
There have also been recommendations for improving epidemiological assessments of industrially contaminated sites. These covered health impact assessments and exposure assessment measures for epidemiological studies of the health effects of ICSs. More validation studies using personal exposure or human biomonitoring and greater use of detailed multi-media exposure assessment procedures for risk assessment. But such sites may not be monitored at all as reliance is placed on risk modelling and sites are cleared and remediated with little or no middle and long-term follow-up of any future exposures. These methods for improving risk assessments do not appear to be very visible in many UK public health practitioners' toolboxes although communities may be aware of them and wish to see them applied or at least considered in public health monitoring of existing and remediated contaminate sites.
Another strand that could be pursued to both increase trust, ensure transparency and demonstrate engagement, as supported by the EU, would be citizen science. Citizen science is now widely accepted and might involve using local knowledge of sites, checking of records on what has been deposited on sites and even monitoring pollutants. Citizen science drawing on participatory methods and often linked to environmental justice is increasingly seen as a way of building community confidence and addressing community concerns about pollution.
It is not effective when a top-down and formulaic approach is adopted to public engagement. Often this is the quick fix adopted by under pressure public health professionals with regard to some remediated sites in the UK, including Scotland, but it is the one most likely to engender mistrust and damage communications. This could be termed the 'egg timer' approach to community engagement used by public health professionals who want to tightly control outcomes and limit debate and questions from communities and important analysis.
Public participatory geographical information systems with demographic, environmental, socioeconomic, health status data have been used very effectively already. One study (Jiao 2015:1) specifically explored soil pollution by metals in a community and demonstrated: 'community-led coalitions in collaboration with academic teams and state agencies can effectively address environmental concerns'.
The World Health Organization's (WHO) European Charter on Environment and Health in 1989 outlined the entitlements and responsibilities of individuals and organisations and the principles of public policy. This effectively offers a basic framework for policy and procedures, ensuring that the problems communities experienced with ICSs in Scotland in the past are addressed effectively in the future. It should be adopted and implemented in full. In Scotland.
The WHO rights for individuals included rights to information, rights to participation and the right to act on public health risks. Communities would also have the right to effective representation in discussions around the future of ICSs that may affect them. Such a right is absent at the moment. Introducing and developing effective citizen science approaches and participatory action research methods based on environmental justice principles to better understand and address concerns about pollution and health would additionally enhance trust. These methods also help health professionals adopt a soft skills approach so necessary when working with anxious communities.
The WHO also highlighted that public and private bodies should use the preferred approach of 'prevention is better than cure', with the health of individuals prioritised, especially those in vulnerable and high-risk groups, with special attention paid to the disadvantaged. So, the health of individuals and communities should take clear precedence over economic and trade considerations. In practice, this seems to be lacking in Scotland according to communities where remediated sites have been mooted or developed. With the newer toxicological and epidemiological techniques now available, this would strengthen public confidence again in any brownfield assessments underway and help to shift principles and practices towards raised public health standards and improved environmental justice, partly through greater public engagement and transparency.
A leading American researcher on the precautionary principle, Joel Tickner, observed:
Precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. Take action in the face of uncertainty. Shift burdens of proof to those who create risks. Analyse alternatives to potentially harmful activities. Use participatory decision-making methods. Don't ask how safe is safe. Nor what level of risk is acceptable. Nor 'how much contamination can a human (usually a healthy adult male) or ecosystem assimilate without showing any obvious adverse effects?' Do ask: 'How much contamination can be avoided while still maintaining necessary values?'; 'What are the alternatives to this activity that achieve a desired goal (a service, product, etc.)?'; 'Do we need this activity in the first place?' The questions asked about a problem determine the solutions one might seek.
Many proposals for ICSs in Scotland fail to answer these basic questions, do not fully shift the burdens of proof to those creating the risk or profiting from developments, do not consider what level of risk is acceptable to communities by talking to those communities, and pay scant attention to the alternatives to remediated developments, even when communities suggest them.
In Scotland, planners, local authorities and environmental agencies should engage with public health staff at the earliest stage in identifying potential health issues linked to remediating contaminated sites. This requires a much improved and transparent data base on such sites, including comprehensive information about materials used or deposited on sites and in landfill over their full life cycle, along with significant improvements in the exposure and health impact assessments, and related improved epidemiological investigations called for in recent years. Inspection and regulation of these sites prior to and after remediation should not be constrained by narrow planning or other rules and regulations.
Public health staff need the time, access to data and skills to explore not just the technical issues but the community concerns. Public health staff and related Central Government departments should be properly funded and staffed. The planning and review systems should be independently assessed as fit for purpose and not simply assumed to be working. Adopting and implementing the WHO European Charter on Environment & Health – especially its key principles for public bodies – in all NHS boards and local authorities to build trust, transparency and community engagement is vital. The precautionary principle, now under attack by Trump's administration with regard to both UK and EU trade deals, should underpin work in this field along with citizen science and participatory action research tools.
In the US, pressure to address the problems of pollution, including remediated sites, has been cast as a struggle for ecological democracy linked to the development of environmental justice movements. In Cornwall, with just under 2,000 contaminated sites identified and needing investigation over a five-year period, the council is now asking residents how they think it should deal with contaminated land. This is ecological democracy in practice.
In Scotland, perhaps a better response to community concerns about pollution involving remediated brownfield sites and their environmental and public health concerns, rather than rubbishing their views on risks, would be to adopt a similar view.