Toxicity expert resigns from Grenfell group

7 August 2019

Professor Anna Stec resigned from the Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) investigating potential contamination from the June 2017 fire, stating ‘nothing is in place’ to assess risks.

BBC News reported on Professor Stec’s resignation from the group, which was set up to investigate potential contamination from chemicals created in the Grenfell Tower fire, stating in her announcement that ‘nothing is in place’ to assess environmental and health risks. AECOM, the company appointed to carry out official tests of samples taken from the site, delivered initial results last month, but Grenfell representatives were told there was no need for ‘immediate action’.

This was said to be because levels were typical of those ‘generally found’ in urban areas, with Professor Stec’s resignation letter – dated 24 July and sent to chief government scientific adviser and SAG chair Sir Patrick Vallance – stating: ‘There are still a significant number of people suffering physically and mentally following the Grenfell Tower fire, and yet, there is still nothing in place to properly evaluate all the adverse health effects of the fire, and specifically exposure to fire effluents.’

She called for a team to be created consisting of experts to prevent what might be seen as ‘significant oversight’ in the case of a similar fire in the future, while a spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that its priority ‘is to ensure the safety and long-term health of the Grenfell community’, adding: ‘The SAG has been involved throughout our programme of additional environmental checks and has collectively agreed that our approach to date has been scientifically rigorous.’

Last October, her analysis had found toxins ‘that may have long-term health implications’ for survivors and thousands nearby in dust and soil ‘and in burned debris that had fallen from the tower’, and 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 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 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 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. In April, 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’. 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’. 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 had said that the risk to public health ‘from air pollution remains low’, and The Guardian noted PHE has ‘consistently played down the likelihood the fire could have caused serious contamination because of the trajectory of the plume of smoke’.

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Toxicity expert resigns from Grenfell group