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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Grenfell fire’s toxic legacy alarms community


Discovery of potentially deadly toxins around Grenfell Tower in North Kensington has been described as “alarming and hugely upsetting” by the chair of community action group Grenfell United. The shoddily refurbished structure was gutted in a devastating blaze on 14 June 2017, resulting in the loss of 72 lives. The tower is just 500m west of the main Notting Hill Carnival route.

Anna Stec, Professor of Fire Chemistry and Toxicology at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and an expert witness to the official fire inquiry, reported that her team found “significant environmental contamination” from a range of toxins. According to a summary in The Guardian, contaminants included polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and benzene, both of which can cause cancer; phosphorous, a nerve toxin; and isocyanates, which, like PAHs, can trigger asthma.

The BBC reported that local people have been suffering a range of health problems “from vomiting and coughing up blood to skin complaints and breathing difficulties”.

Prof Stec’s report contrasts with one issued by Public Health England (PHE, a government body) that downplayed the risks. “…the smoke plume… rose upwards rapidly and was carried in a northerly direction by the wind. This meant that there was a low risk of impact on local air quality from the fire. … Results to date have shown that levels of particulate matter remain low and no asbestos fibres have been found.” PHE pointed out that road vehicles and industry also pump particulate matter, asbestos, dioxins and PAHs into the atmosphere.

At first glance, there seems to be a clear contradiction between Prof Stec’s report, which said the levels of toxic chemicals found were “many times higher than normal”, and PHE’s, which said the minimal additional pollution generated by the fire was not a cause for concern. However, Prof Stec monitored up to 1.2km from the tower and found contaminants 160m away (NE, NW and SW of the fire), whereas PHE confined monitoring to within 120m of the ruined building.

PHE itself pointed to the height of the smoke plume. Almost certainly, this meant a much wider area of London was potentially polluted by toxic particulates, which may well have fallen several miles away in areas that have not been tested by either team. The fact that dust and oily deposits were found 160m south-west of the tower shows that not all the material went northwards.

In a social media post, Grenfell United chair Natasha Elcock said “Allowing exposure to the level of pollutants [mentioned in the UCLan] report would be criminally negligent even without the horror of what happened that night. …21 months after the fire the government has yet to carry out a single soil test or offer a proper health screening programme to the community. The report highlights just how toxic the materials manufactured by Arconic, Celotex and others are.”

Elcock added: “People in our community are worried about what the impact of these toxins are for their health and more importantly the future health of all young people in the area.”