EPA investigation into asbestos in mulch – frequently asked questions

We’ve been responding to enquiries from the community and here you can find answers to the most common questions.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of naturally-occurring fibrous minerals found in soil or rock. It occurs as fine, fibre-like strands or particles. Asbestos was used to create cheap, lightweight, and fire-resistant materials for use in:

  • building
  • manufacturing
  • utilities.

Millions of Australian homes contain asbestos. Asbestos is common in NSW homes and buildings constructed or renovated before 1990.

What are the types of asbestos?

The 2 types of asbestos are:

  • friable – when dry it can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder in the hand
  • non-friable – when dry it cannot be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder by hand pressure. It is mixed with cement or other bonding materials and is also known as bonded asbestos.

Non-friable asbestos can become friable asbestos if the asbestos is damaged or old.

Find out more about friable and non-friable asbestos.

Where was asbestos found?

Asbestos is common in Australian homes and structures built before 1990. It was used in:

  • Cement sheeting (fibro)
  • Drainage and flue pipes
  • Roofing, guttering and flexible building boards (e.g. Villaboard, Hardiflex, etc.). Similar cement sheeting products are used today contain no asbestos
  • Vehicle brakes, clutches and gaskets.

For more information, visit asbestos.nsw.gov.au

What are the risks of asbestos?

Asbestos fibres can pose a risk to health if they float in the air and are breathed in. This is the main way asbestos enters the body. The more fibres that are breathed in, the higher the risk. The fibres can cause the diseases asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

However, living or working with asbestos, or just being around it, is low-risk as long as the asbestos is in good condition and not disturbed.

People who get health problems from inhaling asbestos have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.

What are the different forms of asbestos?

Different forms of asbestos have different risk levels:

  • Bonded (non‑friable) asbestos: if asbestos is mixed with cement or other hard bonding materials, and in good condition, it is likely to be low‑risk.
  • Friable asbestos: can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder by hand pressure. Because the fibres can become airborne more easily, it is higher‑risk than bonded asbestos.

To date, the asbestos that has been found in mulch is mainly bonded (non‑friable). There is a low risk of asbestos exposure for those who have come into contact with the mulch or been near it.

Why is asbestos winding up in mulch?

Recycled mulch must not contain asbestos. Providing or selling it is illegal.

The EPA regularly audits producers and suppliers of recycled mulch.

We’re investigating whether checks at several points in the supply chain detected any contamination.

We’re following up investigating a range of possible criminal offences.

At present we cannot rule in or out any source for this contamination.

What is the NSW Government doing about this?

The NSW Government established an Asbestos Taskforce to support the EPA’s investigation into asbestos in mulch.

The taskforce will co‑ordinate government agencies and:

  • help prioritise sites that are highest risk to the public.
  • ensure all resources are available to secure sites, test them and clean them up.

This is a very large investigation and needs to be done rigorously and carefully.

The Taskforce has supported the EPA’s investigations with on the ground with crews from Fire and Rescue NSW, SafeWork, Public Works and the Natural Resources Access Regulator.

The Taskforce will continue monitoring the situation while moving to broader consideration of legacy asbestos in NSW.

Is one supplier responsible for the contamination?

The EPA is still following up many lines of enquiry.

One supplier has received a prevention notice, preventing it from producing or on‑selling its product.

To date, the common link between the majority of positive sites is the same supplier, however the EPA is now also investigating results from a second mulch supplier. We will provide a further update once we have confirmed details and assessed the risk associated with this supplier.

How much is this investigation, including the remediations, costing the taxpayer?

As this is still an active investigation, we are not able to comment on costs.

Government is committing significant resources for investigation, testing and remediation of affected sites.

Protecting the community is our priority.

The ‘polluter pays’ principle applies, and we will seek to hold those responsible to account.

Does the EPA need more powers?

The NSW Government has introduced changes to the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (POEO Act) and other environmental laws, to strengthen penalties and the EPA’s powers to deter repeat offenders and make polluters pay.

These state-wide reforms are designed to overcome emerging issues and urgent regulatory challenges. This is the first step the NSW Government is taking to ensure environmental frameworks are preventing contamination entering the community and recycling streams and enforcing deterrents to environmental crimes.

The EPA has a strong history of prosecuting waste offences involving asbestos.

Over the past three years EPA prosecutions for asbestos related waste offences have led to about $1.7 million in fines and penalties.

Will EPA test my backyard mulch for asbestos?

If the EPA identifies that a home might have received potentially contaminated mulch, our officers will get in touch with the owner to schedule a site visit, testing and remediation if required.

If you have not been contacted by the EPA but are concerned that a home might have received contaminated mulch, you can engage a licensed assessor to inspect the mulch and test it for asbestos. For a list of licensed asbestos assessors, go to Safework NSW.

Is my school or local park going to be tested?

If the EPA identifies that a council has received mulch in the supply chain being investigated, we’ll contact the council immediately to arrange a site visit, testing and remediation if required.

If you have general concerns about mulch in your local government area, please contact your local council to discuss with them.

Similarly, if we identify a school that has been the recipient of potentially contaminated mulch, we will contact the school immediately to schedule a site visit, testing and remediation works if required.

Our website lists all sites being investigated for asbestos in mulch and results.

Individual schools may be taking their own approach to mulch. If you have concerns about your child’s school, please contact the school directly for the most up‑to‑date information.