Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and sessional GP in Bristol

It’s a tough job being a planner. It would be a breeze if all the applications you received complied perfectly with planning law and no one ever objected, but that’s seldom the case. There’s often a balance to be struck between what the law permits and what’s good for the economy on one hand, and the blighting of land and properties on the other. Pop a high-speed rail link through a village and you halve the property prices and the wellbeing of the residents. Build a nuclear power station and you could make someone’s home and investment unsellable. Worse still, you might kill them.

This dilemma has been vexing me ever since plans were announced to turn a nearby quarry into an asbestos landfill.1 It’s half a mile from where I live, and so might well make our house unsellable, but luckily I don’t want to move until I’m carried out with mesothelioma in 40 years’ time. For those trying to sell their houses now, it’s a nightmare—not helped by the plethora of angry red signs that have appeared in all the surrounding villages. ‘Welcome to Asbestos Valley’ is unlikely to pack the house-hunters in. Or the tourists.

As a doctor, I’m used to weighing up complex risks and benefits. It’s fairly certain that 100 lorry trips a day through narrow country lanes, 6 days a week for 10 years could have an adverse effect on noise and air pollution, and traffic congestion. There’s also likely to be the odd prang and satnav catastrophe.

What’s far harder to predict is the risk from the asbestos itself. The World Health Organization says there is ‘no safe level’ for chrysotile asbestos,2 the type most likely to be dumped, and yet it is inconceivable that some fibres from a 10-year load of 325,000 tonnes won’t escape into the air. At a nearby landfill in Somerset, another operator repeatedly and deliberately smashed up waste asbestos, releasing large amounts of fibre before the Environment Agency stopped it. Our quarry is on top of a very windy escarpment prone to landslip, and the asbestos will be raised up and covered with a layer of topsoil. The asbestos lorries have to be sprayed clean afterwards, but the only place for the water to run off is down the hill and into Bristol’s main drinking water reservoir; and the springs underneath the quarry could pick up soluble hazardous waste to add to the drinking mix.

All these potential risks have got everyone in a lather. Young families have talked about leaving the village, but may be trapped in negative equity. Bristol Water has objected strongly and independent hydrogeology and land stability reports have deemed the site to be most unsuitable. There has to be a very good economic reason for spoiling an area of outstanding natural beauty, but I can’t find one. Only 6600 tonnes of asbestos waste was generated by our four neighbouring councils combined in 2010; and asbestos waste production is in decline. To fill our quarry, asbestos would have to be transported from all over the UK, with all the cost and pollution that this entails.

So what will the Bath and North East Somerset planning committee do? Who knows? But the answer is likely to have a very profound effect on the health and wellbeing of the community I live in, far more so than the NHS does. I’m trying to raise spirits by putting on a comedy fundraiser in Bath. At the very least, it’s taught me that doctors need to take environmental health issues far more seriously. When the demand for antidepressants and sleeping tablets rises in the local GP practices, we need to look outside to see why.

For further information, visit: www.stopstoweyquarry.co.uk

  1. Stop Stowey Quarry Asbestos Landfill website. www.stopstoweyquarry.co.uk (accessed 17 April 2012).
  2. World Health Organization. Elimination of asbestos-related diseases. Geneva: WHO, 2006.G