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'Contaminated land' is used in general terms to describe land polluted by:

  • heavy metals, eg arsenic, cadmium and lead
  • oils and tars
  • chemical substances and preparations, eg solvents
  • gases
  • asbestos
  • radioactive substances

Legal definition

Contaminated land is defined legally as land where substances are causing or are likely to cause:

  • significant harm to people or protected species
  • significant pollution of surface waters or groundwater

This definition refers to contamination caused by past uses of sites such as:

  • former factories
  • mines
  • steelworks
  • refineries
  • landfills

Read Contaminated Land: statutory guidance.

Radioactive land

Land is defined as radioactive when a person could be harmed by spending time on land where radioactivity is present.

Special sites

Some types of contaminated land are classed as special sites. This includes land that:

  • seriously affects drinking waters, surface waters (for example lakes and rivers) and important groundwater sources
  • has been, or is being, used for certain industrial activities, such as oil refining or making explosives
  • is being or has been regulated using a permit issued under the integrated pollution control or pollution prevention and control regimes
  • has been used to get rid of waste acid tars
  • is owned or occupied by the Ministry of Defence
  • is contaminated by radioactivity
  • is a nuclear site

Once a local council has decided that an area is a special site, it's regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

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