Investigations expand into asbestos-contaminated mulch

The number of sites that contain asbestos-contaminated mulch is rising across NSW and the ACT, with investigations underway to confirm their potential safety risks. Contaminated mulch was first discovered at Rozelle Parklands in Sydney, with the number of positive cases recently rising to more than 60 sites including Erskine Park Zone Substation, Robyn Kemmis Reserve, Campbelltown Hospital and a public school at Liverpool.

The NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it had committed significant resources to establish how the contaminated material found its way to Rozelle Parklands and the other sites.

“This is a complex process involving multiple lines of enquiry, including the mulch supply chain and the potential presence of legacy asbestos at these sites,” the agency said in a statement.

“Understandably, the discovery of asbestos in mulch at various public locations has caused extensive community concern.”

The EPA said it is working with councils, landowners, contractors and other agencies to ensure the sites are remediated and safe.

“We have identified several schools as priority sites for testing after the investigation revealed mulch from the same manufacturer that supplied mulch to the Rozelle Interchange had been used at the schools,” the statement said.

“At all locations, except for four, the type of asbestos discovered is non-friable or bonded asbestos.”

“The best way to reduce the risk associated with asbestos is to prevent the fibres from being released by preventing damage, disturbance, or deterioration.”

Different forms of asbestos have different risk levels. Bonded (non-friable) asbestos is likely to be low risk if the asbestos is mixed with cement or other hard bonding materials and in good condition.

Friable asbestos represents a higher risk, as it can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder by hand pressure. If asbestos fibres then become airborne and breathed in, they can be a more serious health risk.

Friable asbestos is the most common way dangerous fibres enter the body and the more fibres that are breathed in, the higher the risk.

The NSW Government recently announced an asbestos taskforce, which will provide more resources and support to the EPA’s investigation into asbestos in mulch.

The government said it is focusing on tracking the complex supply chain, and then facilitating testing, reporting and management of any positive results. 

“Our number one priority is to finish contract tracing the supply chain – so that any potential receiver of the mulch is notified,” said NSW Minister for the Environment, Penny Sharpe.

“This is the largest investigation the Environment Protection Authority has undertaken in recent decades. The complex, criminal investigation involves multiple lines of enquiry.”

WorkSafe ACT also announced that bonded asbestos has been confirmed to be present in mulch samples tested by the regulator.

WorkSafe ACT said it is making enquiries and issuing prohibition notices under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and the Dangerous Substances Act 2004; to not disturb, handle or dispose of mulch material until further notice; while further assessment and action can be arranged.

Further testing of mulch from suppliers around the ACT is underway to establish the extent of the contamination and any further action and remediation required.

“While the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres from bonded asbestos is low, if bonded asbestos is damaged or disturbed, it may cause the release of airborne asbestos fibres,” said ACT Work Health and Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius.

“It is very important that you do not move potentially contaminated material.”