Australia has more than 150,000 sites that are potentially contaminated with toxic waste, and experts say that only a tiny fraction of them are being cleaned up to remove the risk to human health.
Director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation, Professor Ravi Naidu, told ABC’s The World Today that most of the sites are in urban areas and pose a serious threat to human and environmental health.
“Australia has 160,000 potentially contaminated sites and so far we have remediated less than 1 per cent of these contaminated sites,” Professor Naidu said.
“Globally we are looking at in excess of three million potentially contaminated sites. And already, we are spending in excess of $100 billion per annum assessing, managing and, or, cleaning up these sites.”
Professor Naidu says the contaminants are not being remediated at the required pace.
“As a consequence, it is already impacting many, many people from [a] health perspective, and we only recognise that when they die of cancer,” he said.
“Here we are looking at contaminants in the air. So inside the house, for example, [people] may be subjected to certain toxic organic substances.
“There are historically contaminated sites where we might have solvents, like chlorinated hydrocarbons or petroleum hydrocarbons.
“There’s metal contaminants – lead is an example. There are many sites where we have lead in the soil. And fine dust particles that people can inhale. And there’s also asbestos which is a major issue.”
Contaminated sites pose a significant risk
Professor Naidu says the majority of the potentially contaminated sites in Australia are still posing a health risk to people and the environment.
“Somewhere between 60 to 80 per cent of these sites are in the urban environment. And somewhere between 20 to 40 per cent are in the outback,” he said.
“We are introducing many different new chemicals into the environment because these are manufactured annually and they’re released into the environment without us giving a thorough consideration to the toxicity these contaminants have and the risk [they pose] to the human environment.
“We may work on a small percentage of these but a large per cent goes in without us conducting the detailed study that provides us with information that we need to ensure that we protect our environment.”
Some of the known contaminants include arsenic, mercury, and asbestos.
“The other examples are hexavalent chromium poisoning in other countries. And all of these chemicals, toxic substances, are present at contaminated sites that we have to deal with here as well,” Professor Naidu said.
“Other toxic substances that we commonly find here in Australia are poly-aromatic hydrocarbons and petroleum hydrocarbons. There are many, many contaminated sites which have these chemicals.”
Professor Naidu says cooperation with policy makers is needed in order to fix the problem.
“We need to support our policy makers such that the policy makers are able to come up with policies which are underpinned by good science,” he said.
“Second, we need to bring together these policy makers and scientists so that they can accelerate the pace with which we come up with management and remediation strategies which is not done as well as could have been done.
“We have accelerated the pace, but we need to do a lot more than what we have been able to do.”
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