Grenfell ground contamination raises public health concerns

04 April 2019, Katie Coyne

Evidence of soil contamination including cancer-causing substances in the ground surrounding the Grenfell Tower has been found by researchers.

Analysis of soil, debris and char samples following the Grenfell Tower fire has shown ‘significant’ environmental contamination, according to experts at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Substances discovered included known cancer-causing chemicals and respiratory sensitisers, and researchers have renewed their calls for a detailed investigation and long-term health screening to establish potential health risks.

Researchers found that dermal contact in particular – such as gardening or playing on the ground – would lead to a higher exposure to these chemicals.

Anna Stec, UCLan professor in fire chemistry and toxicity, said: “There is undoubtedly evidence of contamination in the area surrounding the tower, which highlights the need for further in-depth, independent analysis to quantify any risks to residents.

“It is now crucial to put in place long-term health screening to assess any long-term adverse health effects of the fire on local residents, emergency responders and clean-up workers. This will also provide a framework for dealing with any similar disasters in the future.”

Research, published in the journal Chemosphere, found soil samples within 140m of the tower contained six key cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) at levels 160 times higher than those found in reference soil taken from Hyde Park in London and a typical UK urban soil.

Soil samples collected within 50m of the tower also contained phosphorous flame retardants, which are materials commonly used in insulation foams and upholstered furniture. These are potentially toxic to the nervous system. In the soil taken from here, as well as in fallen debris and char samples, researchers found synthetic vitreous fibres matching those present in products used in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.

Elevated concentrations of the carcinogen benzene was found up to 140m away from the tower in quantities 25-40 times higher than those typically found in urban soils.

On a window blind inside a flat 160m from the tower, dust and a yellow oily deposit were found to contain isocyanates – potent respiratory sensitisers that can lead to asthma after a single exposure. The quantities in which they were present indicated they resulted from the burning on specific materials used in the 2016 Grenfell refurbishment.

A UK government spokesperson said: “We take Professor Stec’s findings extremely seriously, and fully appreciate the ongoing health concerns.

"We have established a comprehensive programme of environmental checks to fully assess the risks and take appropriate action. Professor Stec is part of an independent group of scientists overseeing this work and her findings will inform the checks we are conducting.

“We are committed to keeping the community safe and safeguarding their long-term health. Anyone living near Grenfell Tower who is concerned as a result of this news should speak to their GP, who will arrange for additional health checks to be carried out.”

A Public Health England (PHE) spokesperson said: “PHE has been assessing and monitoring air quality in the area surrounding Grenfell Tower since the start of the fire on 14 June 2017. PHE’s weekly environmental monitoring reports will continue to be published online.

“The independent air quality monitoring we were asked to commission has shown the risk to people’s health from air pollution around the Grenfell Tower site to be consistently low. No asbestos has been detected, levels of particulate matter remain low, and monitoring results for dioxins, furans, polychlorinated biphenyls and PAHs have been equivalent to background levels for London.”

The MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, has called for legal action over Grenfell human rights abuses. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it had uncovered human rights abuses and Coad has called for it to immediately launch an investigation under the Equality Act.

The EHRC has said it has not ruled out taking action but is waiting to see the outcome of the police investigation and public inquiry.

EHRC chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said: “Our work with the Grenfell community has found that there were human rights breaches before the fire occurred. We have submitted detailed evidence to the inquiry to inform its work and will continue to engage with the relevant authorities to ensure these failures are addressed and never repeated. We will be closely monitoring the inquiry’s ongoing work, and will assess whether any further action needs to be taken in due course.”

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