We are aware that residents of the Grenfell area have previously been informed of the investigation by Professor Anna Stec of the toxic contaminatiion caused by the smoke soot and other effluents over a wide area by the catastrophic fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower, on 14th June 2017, with the loss of 72 innocent lives. With the fourth anniversary of that disaster fast approaching we have decided to revisit the Anna Stec story, partly because it remains unresolved to this day and we wanted to remind all involved of that sad fact and partly because we believe that some, perhaps many, have forgotten some of the details of the Stec affair or may not have been fully informed at the time. Within a month of the Grenfell Tower fire and at the behest of concerned local residents, Anna Stec, Professor of Fire Chemistry and Toxicology at the University of Central Lancashire conducted independent tests of soil samples in the Grenfell Tower area and North Kesington generally, to measure contamination levels. She found levels of cancer-causing chemicals 160 times higher in North Kensington than was normal.
On 8 February 2018, Professor Stec briefed Public Health England, saying further analysis was needed of soil and dust within the tower and other evacuated buildings before residents returned. The so-called “Grenfell Cough” and other health problems including vomiting, coughing up blood, skin complaints and breathing difficulties reported by survivors was indicative, she suspected, of elevated levels of atmospheric contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) which are potentially carcinogenic.
Early results indicated high levels of PAH in the surrounding soil and the biggest threat to survivors would be from absorption of toxic material via the skin, not from smoke inhalation. Black soot from the fire was also highly likely to be contaminated with asbestos from the tower. She believed there would be potential large-scale contamination up to a mile around the tower, with potential long-term health implications.
In September 2018 Professor Stec was appointed as an expert witness to the Grenfell Inquiry.
According to the Inquiry website Professor Stec would undertake an investigation and provide a report of her findings: to determine the origins of fire derived toxins and related deposits present in the Tower, in terms of construction products, furniture and furnishings etc; and where combustible building products were present on the tower exterior, including ACM, insulation and window surrounds, to determine the extent (if any) to which their combustion products penetrated and left identifiable deposits inside the Tower and in individual flats, lobbies and stairs.
Professor Stec resigned from the Scientific Advisory Group (SAG), 0n 24 July 2018, saying nothing was in place to assess the environmental and health risks.. There is no record of a report from her to the Inquiry, but it is widely believed that she was forced out because the SAG had a hidden agenda contrary to her original findings and with which she did not agree.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Professor Stec as some loose cannon as she has impressive credentials which include the following:
- MSc (Eng)(Chemistry with Polymer Technology), Department of Chemistry and Polymer Technology, Warsaw University of Technology, Poland.
- Ph.D.(Fire Chemistry and Toxicity), Fire Materials Laboratory, Centre for Materials Research and Innovation, University of Bolton, UK.
- Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers (FIFireE)
- Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC)
- Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA)
- Chartered Scientist (CSci) of the Science Council
- Member of International Association for Fire Safety Science
Professor Stec and her associates discovered that char samples from balconies 50 to 100 metres from the Tower were contaminated with cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This led to further analysis, six months after the fire, of soil, fire debris and char samples, taken from six locations up to 1.2 km from the Tower. Based on the level of chemicals discovered, Professor Stec and her fellow researchers concluded that there was an increased risk of a number of health problems to those in the local area, from asthma to cancer.
The research published in Chemosphere, revealed that soil samples within 140m of the Tower contained six key PAH’s at levels of around 160 times higher than those found in reference soil samples taken from other urban areas.
Soil samples collected within 50m of the Tower also contained phosphorous flame retardants, materials commonly used in insulation foams and upholstered furniture that are potentially toxic to the nervous system. In this soil, as well as in fallen debris and char samples, they identified synthetic vitreous fibres matching those present in products used in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.
Elevated concentrations of benzene, a proven carcinogen, were discovered up to 140m away from the Tower in quantities 25-40 times higher than those typically found in urban soils.
Dust and a yellow oily deposit from a window blind inside a flat 160m from the Tower, collected 17 months after the fire, were also found to contain isocyanates – potent respiratory sensitisers that can lead to asthma after a single exposure. These substances were discovered in quantities that could indicate that they resulted from the burning of specific materials which were used in the 2016 refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
Professor Stec 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.”
In 2012 she had led research, presented to an American Chemical Society symposium on “Fire and polymers”, which showed that halogen-based flame retardants used in many domestic and other consumer products can increase the production of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gases which are the main cause of deaths from fire. “We found that flame retardants have the undesirable effect of increasing the amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during combustion,” she said.
In 2013 she experimented with the effects of fire on a 1950 style British house discovering that toxic gases were as prevalent in closed rooms and ones with their doors open: this affected emergency egress times. Her work in 2018 showed that fire fighters were 3 times more likely to contract cancer, as the carcinogens entered through the skin. The methods used to wash their protective gear washed the carcinogens into the fibres making them carcinogenic.
At Westminster the Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), a cross-party group, blasted officials for their slow response to potential biohazards after the blaze.
Local residents shared fears of health problems soon after the fire and local MP, Emma Dent Coad, wrote on HuffPost UK that survivors of the blaze had been treated for cyanide poisoning. Dent Coad claimed that local officials ignored warnings from a toxicologist over fumes from the fire and that several schools are located within the danger zone.
Labour MP Mary Creagh, who chairs the EAC, said it took “more than a year” for soil testing around the west London tower to take place. Creagh said: “We need to know the extent of people’s exposure to chemical contamination which is why we are calling for a biomonitoring programme across the UK, with specific monitoring for residents around Grenfell Tower.”
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman claimed its priority is to ensure the safety and long-term health of the Grenfell community.
Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “It is deeply troubling to know that, after the deaths of 72 innocent people, the toxic contamination of the area surrounding the tower could still be damaging the health of local people.
He added: “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. The government’s lacklustre response to the Environmental Audit Committee is a reflection of their total failure to learn the lessons from Grenfell and their unwillingness to take meaningful action to deal with its consequences. The effect of toxic contaminants on firefighters is not well enough understood, which is why the FBU has commenced research with the University of Lancashire to better comprehend the risk. One thing is certain – fires are a storm of toxic chemicals which can have serious long-term health impacts. To take so little action on the exposure of the Grenfell community to this risk is shameful.”
However, after AECOM – the company commissioned by RBKC to carry out the official tests of samples – delivered its initial results, Grenfell community representatives were told there was no need for “immediate action” because levels were typical of those “generally found” in urban areas.
This is a direct contradiction of the earlier findings of Professor Stec who, in her resignation letter, said: “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.”
According to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Prof Stec called for the creation of a team of experts to prevent what may otherwise be seen as “significant oversight” in the case of a future fire.
An issue that has been overlooked was flagged by Matt Wrack of the FBU and was known and described by Professor Stec. It concerns the means of exposure to the cocktail of highly toxic and often carcinogenic effluents released during a fire and, in this case, the inferno that destroyed Grenfell Tower. As Professor Stec emphasised these toxins can be absorbed through the skin. Testing air and soil samples, often months, or even years, after the most intense period of exposure are unlikely therefore be adequate in assessing the risks of adverse health complications arising from that exposure. The most dangerous period of exposure would certainly have been on the night of the fire and in the weeks (or months) following. Survivors and evacuees of the blaze, those in the immediate vicinity, firefighters who attended and were repeatedly exposed, and cleanup workers who came later might well be at risk of suffering long term serious health complications which are at present unquantifiable. Their health should be carefully monitored for any signs of pathology in the longer term.
The situation as it currently stands is that AECOM were expected to issue a more comprehensive report in April 2021 but that report, which is based mainly on the analysis of air and soil samples, has since been further delayed and is not expected to be released before July 2021. This is exactly the lack of urgency that so frustrated Professor Stec and led to her resignation from the Scientific Advisory Group in July 2018. The Grenfell Inquiry, RBKC and their consultants AECOM, need to do better if they are not to be dismissed as engaging in a cover-up and whitewashing exercise.