Leading Australian labs retested landscape products for waste companies after contamination findings

<span>Testing of the recycled soil fill known as recovered fines has come under scrutiny following a Guardian Australia investigation.</span><span>Composite: Guardian design/Guardian</span>
Testing of the recycled soil fill known as recovered fines has come under scrutiny following a Guardian Australia investigation.Composite: Guardian design/Guardian

Facilities belonging to some of the leading commercial laboratory companies in Australia were among those that retested samples of landscaping products at the request of their waste company clients, after initial tests found contamination not compliant with NSW laws.

Guardian Australia revealed earlier this year the testing regime meant to limit toxic chemicals in landscaping material known as “recovered fines” had been compromised by the practice of waste companies asking private laboratories to retest samples until they passed.

The material is used for landscaping in parks, schools, childcare centres and other public places, and in some cases is also sold direct to consumers for use in back yards.

This week, Guardian Australia reported the retests were requested by some of the biggest waste companies in the state.

Some of the labs that did the retesting belong to companies relied on for essential controls such as testing for water quality, food safety, the presence of PFAS contamination and safety of personal care products.

There is no suggestion the laboratories breached any rules in conducting retests at the request of their clients, nor is there any suggestion they deleted individual results or failed to provide all data to the waste companies producing the recycled landscape materials.

Two investigations by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), one in 2013 and one in 2019, found widespread breaches of routine sampling and testing requirements, as Guardian Australia revealed earlier this year. The 2019 investigation looked at about 50,000 pieces of testing and sampling data taken by facilities in 2017 and 2018.

The laboratories named in documents tabled in state parliament in relation to the 2019 investigation all defended their individual practices, saying in several cases it was the responsibility of the waste companies to comply with testing regulations and act on the results of the tests.

But the investigation has raised fresh questions about whether the environmental regulation system is functioning in a way that best serves the public and the environment.

Related: We tested landscaping soil on sale in Sydney stores for asbestos – it came back positive

Information tabled in the NSW parliament after Guardian Australia’s reporting names five Sydney laboratories in relation to the 2019 investigation.

They include ALS Environmental in Smithfield, managed by ALS Global, and an environmental testing laboratory in Lane Cove, managed by Eurofins. ALS and Eurofins are global leaders in scientific testing for several industries, operating labs in more than a dozen countries.

A third lab, in Chatswood, is managed by Envirolab Services, an environmental testing company with facilities in Sydney and Melbourne. The final two are the smaller Sydney Environmental Soil Laboratory (SESL) in Thornleigh, and Resource Laboratories in Seven Hills, whose inhouse testing is focused on physical contaminants such as plastics, with tests for chemical and other non-physical contaminants outsourced.

Each of the laboratories was accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities (Nata).

“The spotlight on landscaping products has revealed a deeper issue in the way products are being tested under the regulations,” said Sue Higginson, the NSW Greens environment spokesperson, who asked for the information to be tabled.

The labs’ response

Recycling facilities that produce recovered fines are required to test their product for a range of substances including lead and other heavy metals, physical contaminants and pesticides.

As well as breaches of sampling and testing requirements, the EPA investigations found that instead of reporting non-compliant results to the EPA and disposing of contaminated products, some waste companies retested samples until they received a compliant result.

Soil fill made from recovered fines is heterogeneous. The composition can be variable, meaning one portion of a sample will not necessarily have the same concentration of contaminants as another portion.

Retesting of recovered fines is not prohibited. But if any test shows a sample has exceeded a contaminant threshold, the product is considered non-compliant. Guardian Australia understands the EPA investigations found no evidence that retests were requested due to errors in the original testing.

Guardian Australia also revealed this week that asbestos fibres had been found in a sample of recycled soil fill bought in Sydney.

Producers are not legally required to test for asbestos, but the investigation found some that did so then requested retesting after asbestos was detected.

Guardian Australia put detailed questions to the five laboratories named in the documents tabled in parliament.

A spokesperson for ALS Limited said: “Any laboratory with an accredited quality management system will retest samples on client request if the quality of the data is questioned. Under no circumstances does ALS carry out repeated retesting to achieve a pre-determined result.”

A spokesperson for Eurofins said potential reasons for retesting were “many and varied”.

“Where any client receives data which is outside expectation, it is normal practice that a check analysis is requested to confirm the original finding and ensure our results are correct and representative of the sample provided to the laboratory.

“It is the right of any client to request a retest should they suspect sample heterogeneity or process error.”

They said “under no circumstances” would laboratory staff knowingly retest to enable waste facilities to give the impression that contaminated landscaping products were compliant with NSW law when they were not.

Simon Leake, the science director of SESL, said the laboratory had never refused a request for sample retesting, except where it involved a “definitive” failure, as with asbestos, but it had refused to deal with some clients because of their use of the results.

“My own laboratory has never repeated testing more than once on a waste sample,” Leake said. “We have frustrated many clients when we fail their samples and on multiple occasions. We have lost clients because we frequently find their product non-compliant. We have refused further business from some clients because of the way they have used our data.”

David Springer, the commercial manager of Envirolab Services, said: “It is not the laboratories’ responsibility to compare sample results to guidelines, and laboratories often do not even know which guidelines a customer is working with.

“If a customer asks us to retest a sample, we will oblige.

“It is important to note that with any retested sample we do not replace the original result. We will provide the retests in addition to our original result, as all results we produce are valid. It is then up to the customer to decide (or justify) any decisions they may make … If a customer chooses to cherrypick results to use, this is beyond the control of the laboratory and should be a matter for the EPA.

“Retesting for the sake of achieving a lower result is not good practice.”

Resource Laboratories said “the repeated retesting of a single sample until a particular result is achieved is not a practice that is undertaken by Resource Laboratories”.

Related: Some of the biggest NSW waste companies broke rules meant to keep contamination out of landscaping products

‘A very serious issue’

Graham Lancaster is the senior manager of commercial and research operations at Environmental Analysis Laboratory (EAL), which specialises in a range of analytical services and is based at Southern Cross University in Lismore.

He said the retesting of individual samples where contamination had been confirmed was not good practice.

“If you get a fail on something like asbestos, that’s a fail,” Lancaster said. “You don’t go back and look at another part of the sample.

“It shouldn’t happen. Procedures need to change so this doesn’t occur.”

The head of the school of civil engineering at the University of Sydney, Stuart Khan, said the retesting that had occurred was not a scientifically valid way to assess whether material was free from contamination.

Khan specialises in environmental engineering and his work involves chemical analysis of environmental samples. He said because products such as recovered fines were heterogenous, there could be different quantities of any given contaminant in different parts of an individual sample.

“If you search hard enough, it’s likely you’ll be able to find a sample that meets the threshold but that doesn’t imply that the material as a whole meets the threshold,” Khan said.

“It’s therefore not a valid way of asking whether the material as a whole has appropriately low concentrations of the contaminants to meet the guidelines.

“Inevitably you will get the answer you want if you search long enough. Clearly we need some safeguards to prevent this practice.”

Representatives of two of the labs that did the retesting also said the system was flawed.

Leake, of SESL, said: “We would suggest that the current laboratory practices and EPA exemption conditions are not adequate to provide a statistically valid result with heterogeneous samples like screened fines.”

Springer, of Envirolab Services, said he personally had supported an EPA proposal – subsequently abandoned after waste industry pressure – to prohibit the type of retesting its investigations identified.

“The current situation of self-regulation (companies taking their own sample and making their own decisions of lab results) should perhaps be looked into by the EPA,” Springer said.

Ian Wright, an environmental scientist and associate professor at Western Sydney University, said the credibility of testing laboratories was critical in a broad range of public health and safety areas.

“I think many people would be unaware of the important role that commercial testing laboratories play in ensuring that our environment is clean and safe,” he said.

“The laboratories test a wide range of solid, liquid and gaseous materials for an enormous range of contaminants. Many industries rely on this information to make sure that their products are safe for use – particularly those products that can potentially impair human health.”

Having samples tested at a Nata-accredited lab was “a very big deal”, he said.

“To be accredited you need to have a very thorough quality control system. To have labs retesting material for hazardous contaminants, and then industry selecting only the ‘safe’ results after previously recording ‘hazardous’ results is a very serious issue.”

• Do you know more? Contact lisa.cox@theguardian.com or catie.mcleod@theguardian.com