Why it is so important to get an environmental search

Posted: 01/11/2011

FAMILIES have been told that poisonous mud in their gardens – contaminated by an old Victorian factory – could be a significant health danger.

They have been warned the discovery of toxic soil means they should not eat vege­tables grown on the land and advised that children should be careful when playing outside.

Camden Council confirmed the findings in letters to residents – seven years after officials first suggested there might be a danger.

Gardens surrounding the old Ascham Street works in Kentish Town will now be paved over with homeowners footing most of the bill. Samples from 19 gardens revealed traces of carcinogenic substances leaked into the land from when the factory stood on the site in Victorian times.

Levels of lead and cadmium were so high that it was ruled they pose “significant” risk of “significant harm being caused” to human health. The other gardens, even those bordered on both sides by contaminated plots, have been given a clean bill of health.

Joan Barnett has lived in Falkland Road for 34 years and spent decades growing marrows, potatoes, cabbages and tomatoes in a garden the council has confirmed is seriously contaminated with lead. She made the heartbreaking decision to pave it over when officials initially said the land was contaminated.

Ms Barnett said: “We had to pay for every bit of work that was done on it and no one has mentioned anything about compensation.

“My husband Alan used to enjoy growing all our veg and the whole family used to eat it. The garden was like our own allotment – we had apple trees, pear trees and all sorts of outdoor vegetables, and now all we have is two greenhouses and concrete slabs. It’s no fun at all.”

She added: “I’ve brought four kids up eating food from the garden, playing out there, eating blackberries and you don’t know if they have been affected by the chemicals.”

Ms Barnett’s fears were heightened by the fate of family dog, Tramp, who finally succumbed to cancer six years ago after suffering from the disease three times.

Murray Buesst, who has lived in Leverton Road for 22 years, was told that his garden was one of the lucky uncontaminated ones.

He said: “One of our neighbours told the council that his wall was glowing in the 1970s.

It seems that the council hasn’t been bothered about the people actually living in these houses, instead they are covering their backsides over EU legislation. It has been comical, pathetic and absurd over the years.”

He added: “We have received reams of letters from Camden Council for years that say nothing.

“Instead of Soviet-style correspondence that keeps us all in the dark it would have been good if they gave us a bit of commonsense advice. One day they came and took away an apple for testing but they never bothered to tell us whether we should or should not be eating the apples from our tree.”

Joe Burke, 37, of Falkland Road, who has a thriving frog population in his garden pond, said: “We are condemned because of the lead, all of the other harmful chemicals are not at dangerous levels in my garden, and these important environments for wildlife shouldn’t be destroyed because of a bit of lead.

“We aren’t seeing three-eyed fish or anything.”

The affected houses all date from the Victorian era and have rear gardens backing onto the old Ascham Street works – a site that was host to nine different factories, including an electro-plating works, until 1986.

The New Journal reported in 2004 that the council had fears for gardens in the neighbourhood with officials planning to survey the soil.

A spokeswoman for Camden Council said: “We are sorry about the length of time taken to reach the current stage in the process of confirming the extent of contaminated land and recognise residents’ concerns.

“The number of properties identified as being contaminated has actually reduced since the last study.

“We have been working closely with a number of agencies to ensure that each resident is provided with the most accurate information possible and have now confirmed to them the outcome of extensive research carried out at each property.

However, the technical and legal requirements for assessing risks from land contamination are inevitably complex which has led to the lengthy process.

“There have also been changes in the government guidance regarding the way in which local authorities should assess risks and consequently the council had to appoint specialist consultants to assist us in the process.”

Camden Council help put with cartoon guide book

AS well as finally revealing whether Kentish Town gardens had been poisoned by dangerous chemicals, Camden Council also handed frustrated residents a series of cartoons explaining, among other things, how not to lick poisonous soil off their hands.

In a “health information” pack handed to residents the council – in conjunction with the Health Protection Agency – helpfully pointed out that “there are many chemicals all around us throughout our everyday lives”.

In case this concept was too difficult for residents to grasp the section is illustrated by pictures of “dirty hands,” “traffic fumes,” “smoking” and “dust.”

Residents are also shown how those nasty “chemicals from soils can get into our bodies” with a warning picture of a young girl licking her fingers after a messy gardening session.

The document uses cartoons to explain the complicated process of chemicals making their way into the soil, from the soil on to human hands or into vegetables, and from there into the human body. 

Written by Georgia Graham, Camden New Journal.






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