The news that communities affected by the Grenfell Tower fire have received an apology from the chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for the council’s lack of further tests for potential contamination in the surrounding area, which was highlighted back in February, has not alleviated concerns or demands for more action from those involved.
Although RBKC and Public Health England (PHE) still believe the community is not at risk, insisting that air quality tests around the tower had shown no cause for concern, many people are still very worried after early tests, conducted by Professor Anna Stec, an independent expert in fire chemistry and toxicology revealed high concentrations of potential carcinogens in dust and soil and in burned debris that had fallen from the tower.
The government had to step in in an effort to bring “peace of mind to the community”. James Brokenshire, the communities secretary, said he had ordered the Environment Agency to oversee “further environmental sampling of the site, including comprehensive soil analysis to check for any signs of contamination”. He said water analysis would also take place if required.
However, when survivors and residents queried how quickly the contamination tests could be completed, given that many had called tests to be undertaken straight after the fire 18 months ago, they were informed that the government was still in the very early stages of designing a testing regime and nothing would happen quickly and could take months.
Early results of the independent study by Professor Anna Stec prompted her to privately urge Public Health England (PHE), the Department of Health, the police and RBKC to organise a range of tests to ensure any potential health risks could be properly assessed.
In briefings to senior health agency staff, Stec said she had found “huge concentrations” of potential carcinogens in the dust and soil around the tower in West London and in burned debris that had fallen from the tower. High levels of hydrogen cyanide were also present in the soil she analysed.
While PHE has monitored the air quality around the tower and repeatedly said it has found nothing to cause concern, Stec has focused on soil, dust and residue not just air quality and has taken samples from eight sites up to a mile away including particles much smaller than those assessed by PHE.
Stec said the so-called “Grenfell cough” reported by survivors after the fire “seems indicative of elevated levels of atmospheric contaminants” and that she had assessed the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a group of chemicals produced following fires that can cause health problems and are considered potentially carcinogenic.
Of particular concern for Grenfell residents are the recent reports that seventeen years after 9/11 experts fear that the number of people dying from illnesses associated with 9/11, including malignant mesothelioma will soon eclipse those who perished in the terrorist attack.
In the years since, the results have been catastrophic for those heavily exposed to the toxic air at the site following the buildings’ collapse. According to recent reports, close to 10,000 first responders and survivors have been diagnosed with cancer since 2001 and more than 2,000 have already succumbed to an illness associated with exposure to the toxic conditions.
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