Toxic contamination found near Grenfell Tower

3 April 2019

The completed study of the toxic contamination surrounding the tower has found ‘carcinogenic chemicals and other pollutants’ in nearby homes and soil.

Last October, analysis by the University of Central Lancashire’s Professor Anna Stec found toxins ‘that may have long-term health implications’ for survivors and thousands nearby. She found toxins in dust and soil ‘and in burned debris that had fallen from the tower’, and had urged Public Health England (PHE), the Department of Health, the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to organise tests to ‘ensure any potential health risks can be properly assessed’.
Preliminary results discovered ‘huge concentrations’ of potential carcinogens, including high levels of hydrogen cyanide, and she suggested health authorities ‘consider taking samples of blood and saliva’ from firefighters, survivors and local residents to ‘monitor any damage to their DNA’. PHE decided not to take action until Professor Stec’s full report was published, a decision that ‘caused widespread concern among other health agencies’.
These supported a mass health surveillance programme and a campaign to ‘raise awareness of the potential risks’. Professor Stec, an expert witness at the inquiry, began the study after survivor concerns about ‘hidden health consequences’. Though PHE monitored air quality and ‘repeatedly’ said it ‘found nothing to cause concern’, Professor Stec focused on soil, dust and residue, taking samples from eight sites ‘up to a mile away’.
She briefed health authorities in early 2018 that she was looking for particles ‘much smaller than those assessed by PHE’, and stated that ‘further analysis was needed’ of soil and dust within both the tower and other evacuated buildings ‘before residents returned’.  A “Grenfell cough” reported by survivors ‘seems indicative of elevated levels of atmosphere contaminants’, and she looked for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels, found after fires, which can cause health issues.
PAH chemicals are ‘considered potentially carcinogenic’, and Professor Stec’s initial findings indicated ‘high levels’ in surrounding soil, leading her to warn the ‘biggest threat’ was from absorption of toxic material through the skin ‘not from smoke inhalation’. Black soot was ‘highly likely’ to have been contaminated with asbestos ‘known to have been present’, and she was ‘very worried’ and ‘frustrated’ PHE ‘did not appear receptive to her concerns’.
PHE said it was aware and would ‘take the results into consideration’, having commissioned ‘independent air quality monitoring’ that has ‘shown the risk to people’s physical health from air pollution and chemical hazards to be consistently low’. It added that saliva, blood and urine samples were not ‘recommended as a means to determine individual exposure from a certain time period or event’.
However, last October Grenfell coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox called for long term health screening for those exposed to ‘potentially hazardous’ smoke, and noted ‘real concern’ that this was not in place for firefighters or survivors, while NHS England said it would screen survivors for effects of smoke inhalation. The Guardian revealed that Professor Stec’s final report found cancer causing chemicals and other ‘potentially harmful’ toxins in fire debris and soil samples ‘that could pose serious health risks to the surrounding community and survivors’.
It uncovered ‘significant environmental contamination’ from toxins, including oily deposits collected 17 months post fire from a flat 160m away. Professor Stec said there was now an ‘urgent need for further analysis’ to ‘quantify any risk to residents’, while the news outlet said that the findings would ‘heap pressure’ on PHE, the Environment Agency and RBKC ‘to explain why they did not immediately commission their own analysis of potential contamination in the aftermath’.
Balconies 50 to 100m away had char samples contaminated with PAHs at levels that ‘posed an increased risk of conditions from asthma to cancer’, while soil samples within 140m contained six PAHs at levels ‘up to 160 times greater’ than in soil from other urban areas. Soil and fallen debris within 50m contained phosphorous flame retardants that are ‘potentially toxic to the nervous system’, while concentrations of benzene 140m away were 40 times higher than in normal soil.
Finally, dust and an ‘oily deposit’ found on a window blind inside a flat 160m away contained isocyanates, which can lead to asthma ‘in a single exposure’. Natasha Elcock, chair of survivors and bereaved campaign group Grenfell United, said that the full report was ‘alarming and hugely upsetting to read. Allowing exposure to the level of pollutants in this report would be criminally negligent even without the horror of what happened that night’.
While many chemicals in the soil are ‘stable while undisturbed’, problems ‘arise’ when they come into contact with skin, while inhalation of chemicals indoors ‘could also be damaging to health’. Professor Stec said the research ‘highlighted the need for a more detailed investigation’, adding: ‘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.’
Though soil may have been contaminated prior to the fire, the researchers believe the level of contamination ‘could not have occurred naturally and was inconsistent with other urban areas close by’. A PHE report published recently said that the risk to public health ‘from air pollution remains low’, and The Guardian notes PHE has ‘consistently played down the likelihood the fire could have caused serious contamination because of the trajectory of the plume of smoke’.
Grenfell United demanded to know why ‘no one who knew about the early results’ had warned residents of the ‘potential contamination’. While the government announced a ‘comprehensive analysis’ of the soil in November, work ‘has yet to begin’, Miss Elcock accusing the government of ‘dragging its heels’, and adding: ‘Twenty-one 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.’
A 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.’