It is news that no one wants to hear. Independent research from Prof Anna Stec at the University of Central Lancashire, released on Thursday, shows heightened levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the area around Grenfell Tower. Phosphorous flame retardants, toxic to the nervous system, were found in soil samples 50 metres from the tower. Dust and oily deposits were wiped from the blinds of homes close to the tower 17 months later. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were found at 160 times the level of reference samples 140m from Grenfell, along with chemicals that can cause asthma with a single exposure. These are not at naturally occurring levels in most urban environments.
This is truly shocking. From the beginning, residents have asked the local authority and Public Health England about contamination. The problem was obvious. For days after the fire black smoke hung in the air, and contaminated homes, clothing and furniture. For months, charred black ash rained down on people’s balconies, gardens, clothes lines and bins.
Seven days after the fire the law firm Bindmans, acting for those affected, wrote to the local authority, Kensington and Chelsea, asking for urgent clarification and guidance. Was the area contaminated? Had a sampling programme begun? There was no response. At public meetings, residents asked Public Health England about the dust settling in their homes. They were told that this “was not the kind of dust that gets into your lungs”. Air monitoring took place, but not immediately. It didn’t test for the toxins found by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire. It didn’t test the dust.
Residents suffering from trauma, and those who have lost loved ones, now have to worry about what they and their children have been exposed to in their homes. They were told they were safe. “After being assured time and again about the risks of pollution following the fire, this report is alarming and hugely upsetting to read,” said the support group Grenfell United in a statement. “It does nothing to build trust in our representatives and says more about managing civil unrest than a truthful duty of care and accountability by our public authorities.”
In an update to residents, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government sought to reassure residents that it was “taking Professor Stec’s concerns extremely seriously”, and has “established a comprehensive programme of environmental checks to fully assess the risks and take appropriate action”. In reality, although an independent consultant, AECOM, has been appointed and residents have been advised to consult their GP if they have concerns, the government has yet to carry out a single soil test or offer a proper health screening programme to the community.
The authorities have known about these risks all along. Why have they failed to act? Stec alerted them to her initial findings in February 2018. In September 2018, the Grenfell coroner wrote to the head of NHS England calling for a long-term screening programme for those exposed to fire and smoke, including firefighters and first responders. As with many issues arising from Grenfell, the authorities seem deaf to valid concerns, dismissing experts (Stec’s initial findings were “not peer reviewed” – now they are), dismissing reports of the “Grenfell cough” as psychosomatic.
There are echoes of the “institutional indifference” (a phrase used by survivor Edward Daffarn to describe the authorities before the fire. This seems to have given way to institutional apathy. And – though this is a matter for the inquiry – there is a wider issue about the materials used, and the toxic load of the building. Stec’s report identifies particular chemicals relating to the materials used in the refurbishment. As Grenfell United says: “The report highlights just how toxic the materials manufactured by Arconic, Celotex and others are.”
Toxicity must be considered in future legislation, to prevent deaths by toxic smoke, and those corporate entities and manufacturers must be held accountable.
These delays should be unacceptable to us all. The authorities are supposed to protect us. The situation is unfolding in real time, with real consequences for residents. “We are trapped here,” said Andrea Newton, former chair of Lancaster West residents’ association. “Public Health England will never tell the truth [because] it will highlight their negligence, place RBKC [the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea] in a housing crisis, put central government in a huge financial predicament. The big players in housing, industry, property development and related manufacturers have too much to lose. They gain nothing from transparency.”
Where is the urgency? At what point will the government act? This is a public health crisis in the making. The government must fulfil its obligations under the Environmental Protection Act. If we cannot trust our government to be candid, we must have legislation to force its hand.
Toxins in the air. Toxins in the soil. The longer this goes on the more it becomes evident that legislation is needed. The public authorities accountability bill recommended by Bishop James Jones in his report on the Hillsborough disaster, must come back into play. “Whatever the government promise today they need to realise it’s already too little and too late,” said Grenfell United. “Testing in the community must start immediately and by immediately, we mean yesterday.”
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.• Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and academic researcher. She is a former neighbourhood officer at Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation