Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life Contents

4Environmental contamination around the Grenfell Tower

76.During our inquiry, concerns were raised about environmental contamination from chemicals around the Grenfell Tower fire site. In the immediate aftermath of a fire, acute toxicity from fire effluents is the leading cause of death and injury. The longer-term health and environmental consequences of fires, including the ‘cocktail of pollutants’ they produce, are less well understood.267 In the Grenfell Tower fire, toxic effluent from the fire was spread via the smoke plume and particulate deposits.268 There have been reports that several residents were treated for cyanide poisoning after the fire.269 Local resident Agnieszka Murray described her experience:

There were particles of debris / burned foam falling down for months and months. The Council did some roof cleaning weeks after the fire, but about a year and a half after, at the end of November 2018 they did a thorough cleaning where a lot of moss soil was removed. I do worry that with the rain and wind the toxins were dropping down our windows into our flats, before the cleaning was done. Sometimes I would place a hot dish near the window for it to cool quicker or stick my head in the rain. The Council offered some painting and carpets cleaning, but this was all offered for cosmetics reasons, and because I had some family difficulties going through it, we never took this opportunity. We had our curtains dried cleaned, offered by the council but our blinds they could not clean. I am concerned now that over a period of time we were exposed to quite a large amount of toxins being around, where we must have inhaled, touched, went into our eyes, and we may have eaten them.270

In June 2019, Grenfell survivors and relatives launched legal action in the US against the cladding maker Arconic, insulation maker Celotex and fridge supplier Whirlpool. The case is filed under product liability law, ‘which is meant to hold firms responsible for injuries caused by the goods they sell.’271

Environmental contamination testing

77.In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Public Health England began air quality monitoring. There was no monitoring of soil and water run-off by the Environment Agency or Kensington and Chelsea Council.272 In March 2019, scientists from the Centre for Fire and Hazards Science, led by Professor Anna Stec, published the results of their testing for environmental contamination around the site. This followed a private briefing to authorities of their preliminary findings in February 2018 and the release of provisional results in October 2018.273

78.Soil samples were collected between one and six months after the fire, at different distances from the Tower. Sample locations were determined by permission to collect and the prevailing wind at the time of the fire. A standard soil sample was also obtained.274 In addition to soil, char samples were collected from three balconies between 50m and 160m from the Tower. Dust and condensates samples were collected from a flat 160m from the Tower, 17 months after the fire.275 Samples were examined for common components of fire effluents. The chemicals identified included benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, isocyanates, phosphorus flame retardants, hydrogen cyanide and synthetic vitreous fibres.276 In some cases the results showed significantly higher concentrations than background levels.

Key findings of Professor Anna Stec’s testing

  • Benzene concentrations exceed guideline values by factors between 25 and 40 in the four soil samples closest to the Tower.277
  • The total sum of 6 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) concentrations, 45m away from the Tower, was found to be 20 times higher than levels found in Hyde Park before the fire and 160 times greater than reference soil.278
  • Polychlorinated dibenzodioxin (PCDDs) levels were found to be 70 time greater than Hyde Park samples and 60 times greater than urban reference soil values.279
  • The four soil samples taken closest to the Tower suggest ‘significant increased cancer risk from dioxins and furans, as well as for PAHs via dermal intake.’280

The study concluded that ‘the Grenfell Tower fire released both acute and chronic toxicants in the fire effluent which may have potential long-term adverse health effects on emergency responders, clean-up workers and local residents.’281 It called for health biomonitoring, including for long-term fire exposure, and further analysis of the Grenfell Tower area for to understand the potential health risks.282 The victim support group Grenfell United echoed the call for further soil testing and health screening in the community.283

79.In evidence, Professor Anna Stec repeated her call for further soil analysis and indoor testing of buildings around the Tower to better understand the extent of contamination.284 She explained:

For me there would be two concerns. One would be indoor: inside people’s flats and houses. We know that a number of residents are still keeping fire debris in their houses, and there is potentially also contamination within that. Within the soil, some of the toxins will travel down with the rain. Some of the toxins will degrade and some will stay long term in the same form.285

She later elaborated that the source of the fire debris was likely to be tiny items such as charred insulation which can get inside homes.286 She said that some residents contacted her about ‘a very strong, pungent smell’ and having difficulty breathing inside their homes despite thorough cleaning.287 When questioned about the presence of fire debris in homes, Professor Tim Gant of Public Health England told the Committee, ‘my understanding is that the local council offered to remove all that debris and the residents had the opportunity to get rid of that debris, so it should not still be there.’288

Response to findings of environmental contamination

80.Kensington and Chelsea Council was responsible for the clean-up following the fire. Advice was issued to residents about how to clean up dust residues. In response to Professor Stec’s evidence, we wrote to Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Department for Education to establish what steps were taken to address potential environmental contamination. Kensington and Chelsea Council told us they completed a deep clean of 300 properties and cyclical, window and jet washing cleaning across all blocks. It also changed soil in vegetable plots and planters where requested. The Council has not undertaken a widespread replacement of soil or deep clean of ventilation systems as it has not been advised that this is required and the risk from air pollution is low.289 Kensington Aldridge Academy, in the vicinity of the Tower, completed a deep clean of its buildings and systems, including ventilation systems, surfaces and furniture.290 The playground and outdoor areas were also replaced due to damage from the fire and planters were cleaned with the soil replaced.291

81.In October 2018, the Government announced the Environment Agency would oversee environmental testing of the area around the Grenfell Tower site.292 This testing is being carried out by AECOM on behalf of the Environment Agency, Kensington and Chelsea Council, Public Health England and NHS England. The initial work includes a site survey, risk assessment, exploratory sampling and identifying historical sources of pollution. These will be used to inform a wider sampling programme in stage two.293 Resident, Agnieszka Murray, expressed concern that AECOM’s results will be based on soil tested two years after the fire and will not account for what residents have been exposed to in the immediate aftermath of the fire.294 Separately, Hammersmith and Fulham Council has commissioned RPS Consulting to undertake testing for environmental contaminants in the soil on the Edward Woods estate, half a mile from Grenfell Tower.295 Kingspan confirmed that the Government has not requested the assistance of industry to support clean-up activities in the area.296

Public Health England response

82.Public Health England began air quality monitoring around Grenfell Tower following the fire in June 2017. It has not considered contamination from soil and dust residues to date. It publishes regular data updates of its monitoring which have concluded that the risk to public health from air pollution remains low.

Results to date have shown that levels of particulate matter remain low and no asbestos fibres have been found above the limit of detection in areas surrounding Grenfell Tower. Current evidence, therefore, suggests the risk to public health from air pollution remains low… Average results to date for dioxins, furans and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are comparable to background levels for London.297

83.Following the publication of her preliminary findings in October 2018, The Guardian reported that Professor Stec privately briefed health authorities on 8 February 2019 about the presence of high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and that the risk to survivors and residents was likely to come from the absorption of toxic material via the skin rather than smoke inhalation. She recommended that further testing be carried out including blood and saliva testing to monitor any DNA damage to survivors and local residents.298 Public Health England responded stating that contaminants in soil come from a variety of sources and are dependent on the historical use of the land. It also said the blood testing proposed was not recommended as a method of determining exposure from a particular time or event.299

84.In her evidence, Pressor Stec restated her view that exposure via dermal (skin) contact or digestion were now of greatest concern and that blood and saliva testing should be carried out. Air pollution is a less significant factor due to the length of time since the fire.300 She explained that current NHS health screening does not include testing for the presence of fire effluents but that studies in the years following the World Trade Centre attacks identified cancers and other diseases.301 Some fire effluents, such as flame retardants, are persistent and will remain in human biological systems in low concentrations; however after a fire, concentrations will be much higher and give an indication of exposure. Professor Tim Gant outlined why Public Health England’s view differs on the benefit of this biomonitoring:

Public Health England does not routinely recommend collection and analysis of biological samples following large fires. Particularly in terms of Grenfell, most of the products of combustion that may have been found in those samples would have been long since cleared from the body a long while back so, even if that was done now, those would not have been detected.

It is important to remember is [sic] that biomonitoring studies of this nature require careful design. There is often a lack of causality process between what is analysed in those samples and any later health effects, and the results cannot be meaningfully interpreted. That in many ways can cause an affected community more distress than it does in providing answers. That is one of the reasons why Public Health England would not have recommended in that place that biomonitoring be carried out, and it certainly would not be useful at this stage this long after the fire.302

When questioned about the emergence of a ‘Grenfell cough’ amongst 60 to 70 residents, Professor Gant noted that this would be of concern ‘if it could be directly assigned to smoke inhalation or other chemical contaminants in the fire’303 and advised that it be reported to a GP.

85.We are troubled by the lack of urgency in response to the findings of environmental contamination around the Grenfell Tower site. We consider the results of sufficient concern to warrant immediate action yet in correspondence, Kensington and Chelsea Council told us ‘until the [Government’s] testing programme is complete we will not know if there is environmental contamination.’304 At the same time, residents have reported the emergence of the ‘Grenfell cough’ and health problems including vomiting, coughing up blood, skin complaints and breathing difficulties.305 We share Public Health England’s desire not to cause the affected community any further distress; however we fear the delay in soil testing and offering full health testing is contributing to the sense that public authorities are complacent about the risks and patronising about the experience of local residents.

86.We support calls from experts and residents for full health biomonitoring. We understand Public Health England’s concerns but believe it is possible to design a comprehensive biomonitoring programme for local residents, including specific monitoring for the effects of exposure to fire effluents. This should be led by Public Health England with input from fire toxicity experts. It should be funded through the central government’s Bellwin scheme and implemented as soon as possible so that the community can be offered reassurance about their ongoing exposure levels. We also recommend that any local residents who have concerns about dusts or residues within their homes be offered the opportunity to have them tested for environmental contamination. Where contamination is identified, a further deep-clean of the home and surrounding residences should be carried out by Kensington and Chelsea Council.

87.Environmental contamination testing should be carried out routinely in the immediate aftermath of major disasters. This should include soil and water testing and be in addition to air quality monitoring. The results of this monitoring should be made public and it should continue until the public are assured there is no long-term contamination risk.

Toxicity of smoke

88.As discussed in Chapter Three, the inhalation of toxic gas and smoke is the leading cause of deaths from fire.306 Carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, known as the ‘toxic twins’, are both powerful chemical asphyxiants.307 Professor Stec told us that the toxicity of the fire is dependent on the type of material burning and the scale of the fire.308 Ventilation conditions are also a factor as Roy Weghorst of Kingspan explained:

If you talk about toxicity, it is a very difficult subject. To establish the toxicity of a product you look at, for example, is it a well-ventilated fire or an under-ventilated fire? Because that gives you completely different readings of how toxic these chemicals are being released in a fire because they burn very well ventilated. As soon as they start to become burning under-ventilated you get into different things, but that goes for everything.309

Kingspan’s K15 Kooltherm product made from phenolic foam and polyisocyanurate (PIR) plastic insultation, which are considered combustible, was present in Grenfell Tower. Both products are included in the Government ban on combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise buildings.310 Kingspan subsequently launched a non-combustible mineral fibre insulation.311

89.Correspondence from Rockwool UK said ‘current [building] regulations do not contain any restrictions around the use of materials that produce high levels of toxic smoke, nor is there a toxicity standard and accompanying requirement for product labelling.’312 Further, Professor Stec said commercial testing does not necessarily consider human exposure to fire effluents.313 The London Fire Brigade called for a greater understanding of how toxic products behave including their potential to build up in escape routes and residual contamination after a building has been reoccupied.314 Following the recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of the building regulations and fire safety published in May 2018, the Government consulted on the technical guidance on fire safety accompanying the Building Regulations. The Government stated that it ‘intends to achieve Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendation for a clearer, more transparent and more effective specification and testing regime of construction products.’315 The Government is due to publish its response in the coming weeks.

Exposure of firefighters

90.Firefighters and clean-up workers are exposed to elevated levels of persistent environmental contaminants, such as brominated and chlorinated dioxins and furans, which can adversely affect human health and the environment. They are also exposed to dangerous levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This exposure has been linked to elevated rates of four cancers in firefighters: multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate, and testicular. US firefighters have twice the line-of-duty death rate from cancers than the general population.316 Firefighters carrying out their normal work practices can cause cross-contamination of their personal protective equipment. Studies of California firefighters showed that they have higher levels of PBDEs in blood serum than the general population. In addition, elevated contamination was identified in fire station dust compared with Californian homes. This is possibly linked to tracking of contamination from incidents to fire stations.317 The Centre for Fire and Hazard Science suggested that these additional hazards are linked to the replacement of traditional, non-combustible building materials with flame retardant treated synthetic polymers which increase the fire risk and long-term toxicity.318

91.Statistical analysis of Scottish firefighters found that they typically have more than one type of cancer and recent trends suggest these cancers are developing in younger firefighters.319 Researchers identified higher instances of skin, multiple melanoma, liver and kidney cancers.320 Professor Stec suggested that this is linked to skin absorption rather than inhalation.321 This reflects similar findings by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 2015 which found fire fighters had a higher number of cancer related diagnoses and deaths, and certain cancers were more prevalent in younger fire fighters including bladder and prostate cancers.322 Firefighters are considered workers performing their duties so are not included in NHS health screening programme offered in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Employers are responsible for monitoring the health of employees. The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) remit includes ensuring employers are undertaking their responsibilities under the law.323

92.There is increasing awareness amongst firefighters about the risk from fire effluent contamination. A majority of states in the US and Canada have introduced presumptive legislation for firefighters which recognises certain cancers as occupational hazards. The most common cancers legislated for include leukaemia, lymphoma, bladder and brain cancer.324 London Fire Brigade have established a contaminants committee to consider measures London firefighters can take to limit their exposure. In addition, the Fire Brigades Union have partnered with the University of Central Lancashire to undertake a £500,000 research project to better understand the exposure of UK firefighters to contaminants. Professor Stec described the study in evidence.

The studies—probably the first in the world—which we are doing with the Fire Brigades Union for the next four years are divided into three areas. One will look at the work environment and contamination that is in the offices, fire engines and private cars that part-time firefighters take. The other one will look at exposure for different types of toxins on the clothing; the permeability of the clothing, especially within the age; and then how much of those toxins get to the firefighter’s body, so there will be blood and urine testing. We will combine that and we hope to have a better understanding and better data to answer that.325

93.The Government has stated its intention to achieve a more effective testing regime for construction products and we support the work of our colleagues on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee considering modern methods of construction. We have heard that the flame-retardant chemicals used in building materials, furniture and electrical goods can contribute to the overall toxicity of fires, putting individuals and emergency service workers at greater risk. We recommend that any update to fire test standards for building materials include a toxicity standard, therefore eliminating the use of the most toxic substances. We are aware that the unique circumstances of each fire contributes to its overall toxicity; however, by reducing the toxicity of individual substances, it should be possible to reduce the toxicity of fires as a whole.

94.We recognise that firefighters have a greater risk from environmental contamination from fires and support the research being undertaken by the University of Central Lancashire and the Fire Brigades Union. This is still in its early stages. However, research from the US has already shown that firefighters suffer higher instances of cancer in carrying out their duties than the normal population. The Government should update the Social Security Regulations so that the cancers most commonly suffered by firefighters are presumed to be industrial injuries. This should be mirrored in the UK’s Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits Scheme. We also recommend that the Health and Safety Executive monitors the progress of the Fire Brigades Union research and provides assistance in implementing recommendations which seek to improve the work environments of UK firefighters. This should include measures to minimise contamination from clothing and equipment and reduce the overall exposure of firefighters, their families and the public.

267 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 2.

268 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 1.

269 How fire-safe is British furniture?, BBC Newsnight, 13 December 2017.

270 Mrs Agnieszka Murray (TCS0070), p 1.

272 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), pp 5–6.

274 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 6.

275 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 7.

276 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), pp 1–2.

277 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 21.

278 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 21.

279 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 21.

280 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 24.

281 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), p 26.

282 Stec, A.A. et al., Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire, Chemosphere, vol 226 (July 2019), pp 26–7.

290 Kensington Aldridge Academy, KAA1 – FAQs [accessed 17 June 2019].

294 Mrs Agnieszka Murray (TCS0070), p 2.

306 Mckenna, S.T. et al., Flame retardants in UK furniture increase smoke toxicity more than they reduce fire growth rate, Chemosphere, vol 196 (2018), p 6.

307 The Toxic Twins, Fire Rescue Magazine, 2 January 2016.

316 Centre for Fire and Hazard Science, University of Central Lancashire (TCS0033), p 3.

317 Centre for Fire and Hazard Science, University of Central Lancashire (TCS0033), p 3.

318 Centre for Fire and Hazard Science, University of Central Lancashire (TCS0033), p 3.

324 First Responder Centre for Excellence, Occupational Cancer Legislation [accessed 9 July 2019].

Published: 16 July 2019