Section 2 Resistance to contaminants

Resistance to contaminants

  1. Introduction
    1. Solid and Liquid Contaminants
      1. Remedial measures
        1. Risks to buildings, building materials and services
        2. Methane and other gases from the ground
          1. Introduction
            1. Risk assessment
              1. Remedial measures
              2. Radon


                Table 2

                2.1A wide range of solid, liquid and gaseous contaminants can arise on sites, especially those that have had a previous industrial use (see paragraph 0.12 for the definition of a contaminant). In particular, the burial of biodegradable waste in landfills can give rise to landfill gas (see paragraph 2.25). Sites with a generally rural use such as agriculture or forestry may be contaminated by pesticides, fertiliser, fuel and oils and decaying matter of biological origin.

                2.2Table 2 lists examples of sites that are likely to contain contaminants. It is derived from the ‘Industry Profile’ guides produced by the former Department of the Environment (DoE), each of which deals with a different industry with the potential to cause contamination29. Each profile identifies contaminants which may be associated with the industry, areas on the site in which they may be found and possible routes for migration. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)/Environment Agency publication CLR 830 presents a selection of contaminants that may be relevant for the assessment of land affected by contaminants as they are likely to be found on a large number of industrial sites across the UK.

                2.3In addition, there can be problems of natural contaminants in certain parts of the country as a result of the underlying geology. In this instance the contaminants can be naturally occurring heavy metals (e.g. cadmium and arsenic) originating in mining areas, and gases (e.g. methane and carbon dioxide) originating in coal mining areas and from organic rich soils and sediments such as peat and river silts. The Environment Agency has produced two guidance documents31,32 on this subject which discuss the geographical extent of these contaminants, the associated hazards, methods of site investigation and protective measures.

                2.4Natural contaminants also include the radioactive gas radon, although the specific approach for assessing and managing the risks it poses is different from other contaminants (see paragraphs 2.39 to 2.41).

                2.5Sulphate attack affecting concrete floor slabs and oversite concrete associated with particular strata also needs to be considered. Principal areas of sulphate bearing strata in England and Wales are shown in Diagram 1 and Table 1. BRE Special Digest SD133 provides guidance on investigation, concrete specification and design to mitigate the effects of sulphate attack.

                Solid and Liquid Contaminants

                Table 3

                Risk assessment
                General concepts

                2.6To ensure safe development of land affected by contaminants the principles of risk assessment (as set out in paragraph 2.8 below) should be followed. The general approach is founded on the concept of the ‘source-pathway- receptor’ relationship, or pollutant linkage, where source refers to contaminants in or on the ground. This is illustrated by the conceptual model34 in Diagram 2.

                2.7When land affected by contaminants is developed, receptors (i.e. buildings, building materials and building services, as well as people) are introduced onto the site and so it is necessary to break the pollutant linkages. This can be achieved by:

                • atreating the contaminant (e.g. use of physical, chemical or biological processes to eliminate or reduce the contaminant’s toxicity or harmful properties);
                • bblocking or removing the pathway (e.g. isolating the contaminant beneath protective layers or installing barriers to prevent migration);
                • cprotecting or removing the receptor (e.g. changing the form or layout of the development, using appropriately designed building materials, etc.);
                • dremoving the contaminant (e.g. excavating contaminated material).
                Stages of risk assessment

                2.8In assessing the risks for land contamination a tiered approach is adopted with an increasing level of detail required in progressing through the tiers. The three tiers are: preliminary risk assessment, generic quantitative risk assessment (GQRA) and detailed quantitative risk assessment (DQRA). Once the need for a risk assessment has been identified, it will always be necessary to undertake a preliminary risk assessment but, depending on the situation and the outcome, it may not be appropriate to do a more detailed risk assessment. Alternatively, it may be necessary to do only one or both of the more detailed risk assessments. For each tier, the model procedures for the management of land contamination (CLR 11, Consultation draft 2003) describes the stages of risk assessment that should be followed for identifying risks and making judgements about the consequences of land affected by contamination when developing a site. These are outlined below:

                • aHazard identification – developing the conceptual model by establishing contaminant sources, pathways and receptors. This is the preliminary site assessment which consists of a desk study and a site walk-over in order to obtain sufficient information to obtain an initial understanding of the potential risks. An initial conceptual model for the site can be based on this information.
                • bHazard assessment – identifying what pollutant linkages may be present and analysing the potential for unacceptable risks. Collect further information and undertake exploratory site investigation to refine understanding of risks and the likelihood of pollutant linkages. The results may be interpreted using generic criteria and assumptions
                • cRisk estimation – establishing the scale of the possible consequences by considering the degree of harm that may result and to which receptors. Undertake detailed ground investigation to collect sufficient data to estimate the risks the contaminants may pose to defined receptors under defined conditions of exposure.
                • dRisk evaluation – deciding whether the risks are acceptable or unacceptable. Review all site data to decide whether estimated risks are unacceptable, taking into account the nature and scale of any uncertainties associated with the risk estimation process.

                2.9Guidance on the investigation of sites potentially affected by contaminants is provided in:

                • athe Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists (AGS) document35;
                • bBS 5930:199936;
                • cBS 10175:200137; and
                • dthe Environment Agency documents38-45.

                They recommend a risk based approach to identify and quantify the hazards that may be present and the nature of the risk they may pose. They describe the design and execution of field investigations, including suitable sample distribution strategies, sampling and testing.

                Hazard identification and assessment

                2.10A preliminary site assessment is required to provide information on the past and present uses of the site and surrounding area that may give rise to contamination (see Table 2). During the site walk-over there may be signs of possible contaminants (see Table 3). The information collated from the desk study and site walk-over can assist and will dictate the design of the exploratory and detailed ground investigation.

                2.11The site assessment and risk evaluation should pay particular attention to the area of the site subject to building operations. Those parts of the land associated with the building that include the building itself, gardens and other places on the site that are accessible to users of the building and those in and about the building should be remediated to the requirements of the Building Regulations.

                There may be a case for a lower level of remediation if part of, or the remainder of, the land associated with the building, or adjacent to such land, is accessible to a lesser extent to the user or those in and about the building than the main parts of the buildings and their respective gardens. This incremental approach may also apply when very large sites are subject to redevelopment in stages; it may be possible to limit remediation to the site that is subject to building operations.

                In all cases the risk evaluation and remediation strategy documentation is likely to be appropriate for demonstrating that restricted remediation is acceptable. The onus is on the applicant to show why part of a site may be excluded from particular remediation measures.

                Even if the adjacent land is not subject to Building Regulations, which are concerned with health and safety, it may still be subject to planning control legislation or to control under Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

                2.12The Planning Authority should be informed prior to any intrusive investigations or if any substance is found which is at variance with any preliminary statements made about the nature of the site.

                Risk estimation and evaluation

                2.13The detailed ground investigation must provide sufficient information for the confirmation of a conceptual model for the site, the risk assessment and the design and specification of any remedial works. This is likely to involve collection and analysis of soil, soil gas, surface and groundwater samples by the use of invasive and/or non-invasive techniques. An investigation of the groundwater regime, levels and flows is essential for most sites since elevated groundwater levels could bring contaminants close to the surface both beneath the building and in any land associated with the building. Expert advice should be sought but further guidance and information are provided in Annex A.

                2.14During the development of land affected by contaminants the health and safety of both the public and workers should be considered46,47

                Remedial measures


                2.15If unacceptable risks to the defined receptor have been identified then these need to be managed through appropriate remedial measures. The risk management objectives are defined by the need to break the pollutant linkages using the methods outlined in paragraph 2.6 and described below. Other objectives will also need to be considered such as timescale, cost, remedial works, planning constraints and sustainability. Depending on the contaminant, three generic types of remedial measures can be considered: treatment, containment and removal. The containment or treatment of waste may require a waste management licence from the Environment Agency.

                When building work is undertaken on sites affected by contaminants where control measures are already in place, care must be taken not to compromise these measures. For example, cover systems may be breached when new building foundations are constructed, such as when extensions are added.


                2.16A wide range of treatment processes is now available for dealing with contaminants. Biological, chemical and physical techniques carried out either in or ex situ exist which may decrease one or more of the following features of the contaminants: mass, concentration, mobility, flux or toxicity. The choice of the most appropriate technique for a particular site is a highly site-specific decision for which specialist advice should be sought.


                2.17 Containment in its widest sense usually means encapsulation of material containing contaminants but in the context of building development containment is often taken to mean cover systems. However, in-ground vertical barriers may also be required to control lateral migration of contaminants.

                2.18Cover systems involve the placement of one or more layers of materials over the site to achieve one or more of the following objectives:

                • abreak the pollutant linkage between receptors and contaminants;
                • bsustain vegetation;
                • cimprove geotechnical properties; and
                • dreduce exposure to an acceptable level.

                2.19Some of the building structures, e.g. foundations, sub-structure and ground floor, may, dependent on the circumstances and construction, contribute to measures to provide effective protection of health from contaminants.

                2.20Imported fill and soil for cover systems should be assessed at source to ensure that it is not contaminated above specified concentrations and meets required standards for vegetation48. Design and dimensioning of cover systems, particularly soil based ones typically used for gardens, should take account of their long-term performance where intermixing of the soil cover with the contaminants in the ground can take place. Maintenance and monitoring may be necessary. Gradual intermixing due to natural effects and activities such as burrowing animals, gardening, etc. needs to be considered. Excavations by householders for garden features, etc. can penetrate the cover layer and may lead to exposure to contaminants. Further guidance on the design, construction and performance of cover layers is given in the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) Report SP12449.


                2.21This involves the excavation and safe disposal to licensed landfill of the contaminants and contaminated material. Excavation can be targeted to contaminant ‘hot spots’, or it may be necessary to remove sufficient depth of contaminated material to accommodate a cover system within the planned site levels. Removal may not be viable depending on the extent and depth of the contaminants on the site and the availability of suitably licensed landfills. Imported fill should be assessed at source to ensure that there are no materials that will pose unacceptable risks to potential receptors.

                2.22Further detailed guidance on all three types of remedial measure is given in the Environment Agency/NHBC R & D Publication 66 referred to above and in a series of CIRIA publications50-55.

                Risks to buildings, building materials and services

                2.23The hazards to buildings, building materials and services on sites affected by contaminants need to be considered since these are also receptors. The hazards to consider are:

                • aAggressive substances. These include inorganic and organic acids, alkalis, organic solvents and inorganic chemicals such as sulphates and chlorides which may affect the long-term durability of construction materials (such as concrete, metals and plastics).
                • bCombustible fill. This includes domestic waste, colliery spoil, coal, plastics, petrol- soaked ground, etc. which, if ignited, may lead to subterranean fires and consequent damage to the structural stability of buildings, and the integrity or performance of services.
                • cExpansive slags. The two main types are blast furnace and steel making slag which may expand some time after deposition – usually when water is introduced onto the site – causing damage to buildings and services.
                • dFloodwater affected by contaminants. Substances in the ground, waste matter or sewage may contaminate floodwater. This contaminated water may affect building elements, such as walls or ground floors, that are close to or in the ground. Guidance on resistant construction can be found in Preparing for floods56 or Design guidance on flood damage to dwellings57.

                2.24Although the building and building materials are the main receptors with these hazards, ultimately there could be harm to health. A particular concern is the effect of hydrocarbons permeating potable water pipes made of polyethylene. Guidance on reducing these risks is given in a Water Research Centre report58. Further guidance on the assessment and management of risks to building materials is given in an Environment Agency document59.

                Methane and other gases from the ground


                2.25The term ‘methane and other gases’ is used to define hazardous soil gases which either originate from waste deposited in landfill sites or are generated naturally. It does not include radon which is dealt with separately in paragraphs 2.39 to 2.41. However, the term does include volatile organic compounds (VOCs). As stated in Limitations on Requirements above, measures described in this document are the minimum that are needed to comply with the Building Regulations. Further actions may be necessary to deal with the requirements of other legislation.

                2.26Landfill gas is generated by the action of micro-organisms on biodegradable waste materials in landfill sites. It generally consists of methane and carbon dioxide together with small quantities of VOCs which give the gas its characteristic odour. Methane and oxygen deficient atmospheres (sometimes referred to as stythe or black-damp) containing elevated levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen can be generated naturally in coal mining areas. Methane and carbon dioxide can also be produced by organic rich soils and sediments such as peat and river silts. A wide range of VOCs can also be present as a result of petrol, oil and solvent spillages. Methane and other gases can migrate through the subsoil and through cracks and fissures into buildings.

                2.27Methane is an explosive and asphyxiating gas. Carbon dioxide although non-flammable is toxic. VOCs are not only flammable and toxic but can also have a strong, unpleasant odour. Should any of these gases build up to hazardous levels in buildings then they can cause harm to health or compromise safety.

                Risk assessment

                2.28 The risk assessment process outlined in paragraph 2.8 should also be adopted for methane and other gases. Further investigation for hazardous soil gases may be required where the ground to be covered by the building and/or any land associated with the building is:

                • aOn a landfill site, within 250m of the boundary of a landfill site or where there is suspicion that it is within the sphere of influence of such a site. The Environment Agency’s policy on building development on or near to landfills should be followed.
                • bOn a site subject to the wide scale deposition of biodegradable substances (including made ground or fill).
                • cOn a site that has been subject to a use that could give rise to petrol, oil or solvent spillages.
                • dIn an area subject to naturally occurring methane, carbon dioxide and other hazardous gases (e.g. hydrogen sulphide).

                2.29There are documents that cover hazardous soil gases in these specific contexts:

                • aWaste Management Paper No. 2760 gives guidance on the generation and movement of landfill gas as well as techniques for its investigation. Complementary guidance is given in a document61 by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM).
                • bThe Institute of Petroleum has prepared a guidance document covering petroleum retail sites62.
                • cThe BGS report on naturally occurring methane and other gases63 gives guidance on the geographical extent of these contaminants, the associated hazards and methods of site investigation. This is supported by a report sponsored by the former DoE on methane and other gases in disused coal mining areas64.
                • dIn addition, CIRIA has produced three relevant guidance documents on methane and other gases which describe how such gases are generated and move within the ground65, methods of detection and monitoring66 and investigation strategies67.

                2.30During a site investigation for methane and other gases it is important to take measurements over a sufficiently long period of time in order to characterise gas emissions fully. This should also include periods when gas emissions are likely to be higher, e.g. during periods of falling atmospheric pressure. It is also important to establish not only the concentration of these gases in the ground but also the quantity of gas generating materials, their rate of gas generation, gas movement in the ground and gas emissions from the ground surface. This is an important part of the risk estimation stage. Indications about the gas regime in the ground can be obtained through surface emission rate and borehole flow rate measurements, and guidance on this is given in CIRIA Reports 15168 and 15269.

                2.31Construction activities undertaken as part of building development can alter the gas regime on the site. For example, a site strip can increase surface gas emissions as can piling and excavation for foundations, and dynamic compaction can push dry biodegradable waste into moist, gas- active zones.

                2.32There are no Soil Guideline Values (see Annex A) for methane and other gases. When assessing gas risks in the context of traditional housing there is a need to consider two pathways for human receptors: (i) gas entering the dwelling through the sub-structure, and building up to hazardous levels, and (ii) subsequent householder exposure in garden areas which can include where outbuildings (e.g. garden sheds and greenhouses) and extensions are constructed, and where there may also be excavations for garden features (e.g. ponds).

                2.33Guidance on undertaking gas risk assessment is given in CIRIA Report 15269, and the GaSIM model is also available for assessing gas emissions from landfill sites70. There is further discussion of gas risk assessment in the forthcoming Defra/Environment Agency document CLR 1171.

                2.34 CIRIA Report 14972 and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) Partners in Technology (PIT) report73 describe a range of ground gas regimes (defined in terms of soil gas concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide as well as borehole flow rate measurements) which can be helpful in assessing gas risks.

                2.35Depending on the proposed use, for non- domestic development the focus might be on the building only, but the general approach is the same.

                Remedial measures

                2.36If the risks posed by the gas are unacceptable then these need to be managed through appropriate building remedial measures. Site-wide gas control measures may be required if the risks on any land associated with the building are deemed unacceptable. Such control measures include removal of the gas generating material or covering together with gas extraction systems. Further guidance is contained in CIRIA Report 14972. Generally speaking, expert advice should be sought in these circumstances.

                2.37Gas control measures for dwellings consist of a gas resistant barrier across the whole footprint (i.e. walls and floor) above an extraction (or ventilation) layer from which gases can be dispersed and vented to the atmosphere. They are normally passive, i.e. gas flow is driven by stack (temperature difference) and wind effects. Consideration should be given to the design and layout of buildings to maximise the driving forces of natural ventilation. Further guidance on this and detailed practical guidance on the construction of protective measures for housing is given in the BRE/Environment Agency report BR 41473. (In order to accommodate gas resistant membrane, for example as shown in BR414, the position and type of insulation may have to be adjusted). The DETR/Arup Environmental report74 compares the performance of a range of commonly used gas control measures and can be used as a guide to the design of such measures.

                2.38Gas control measures for non-domestic buildings use the same principles as those used for housing, and the DETR/Arup Environmental report can also be used as a guide to design. Expert advice should be sought as the floor area of such buildings can be large and it is important to ensure that gas is adequately dispersed from beneath the floor. The use of mechanical (as opposed to passive) systems and monitoring and alarm systems may be necessary. There is a need for continued maintenance and calibration of these systems, so they are more appropriate with non-domestic buildings (as opposed to dwellings) since there is usually scope for this. Again, expert advice should be sought. Special sub-floor ventilation systems are carefully designed to ensure adequate performance and should not be modified unless subjected to a specialist review of the design. Such ventilation systems, particularly those using powered ventilation, are unlikely to be appropriate for owner occupied properties as there is a risk of interference by users.


                2.3Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive colourless and odourless gas which is formed in small quantities by radioactive decay wherever uranium and radium are found. It can move through the subsoil and so into buildings. Some parts of the country, notably the West Country, have higher levels than elsewhere. Exposure to high levels for long periods increases the risk of developing lung cancer. To reduce this risk all new buildings, extensions and conversions, whether residential or non-domestic, built in areas where there may be elevated radon emissions, may need to incorporate precautions against radon.

                2.40Guidance on the areas susceptible to radon and practical protective measures has been published by the BRE as Report BR 21175. This guidance was developed to show radon protective measures for dwellings.

                A European Council Directive establishes a common basis for radiation protection legislation in all Member States. The Ionising Radiations Regulations76 set a national reference level for radon gas and employers and self-employed persons responsible for a workplace are required to measure radon levels on being directed to do so. See also the HSE/BRE guide ‘Radon in the workplace’77.

                There is at present no guidance on protection from radon in the workplace but some of the techniques used for installing a radon resistant membrane, described in BR 211, may be suitable for use in domestic sized buildings with heating and ventilation regimes similar to those used in dwellings. The guidance in BR 211 can be used as the basis for radon protection of other building types but this should be done with caution. Information in ‘Radon in the workplace’ provides guidance for existing non-domestic buildings.

                Interim guidance on extensions can be found in GBG 25 Buildings and radon78.

                2.41Although the precise areas where measures should be taken are listed in the BRE Report, these are reviewed by DCLG in the light of advice from the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) and the British Geological Survey (BGS). Current information on the areas delineated by ODPM for the purposes of Building Regulations should be obtained from local authority building control officers or from approved inspectors. Changes to areas delineated as requiring radon protection will be notified to building control bodies and will be posted on the DCLG website.