Marking eleven months since the tragic Grenfell Tower fire disaster, which claimed the lives of so many men, women and children, the community turned out again on Monday for yet another silent march demanding justice and truth for the survivors and their families. A demonstration was earlier held outside Parliament where the Grenfell Inquiry petition had been scheduled for debate the same day.
Since the fire the truth has gradually started to emerge. Recently evidence came to light which shows that Chelsea and Kensington council opted for a cheaper refurbishment than they had originally budgetted for. The cladding specified in the planning application was replaced with a cheaper flammable alternative, the insulation specified was also replaced with a cheaper alternative that emitted deadly cyanide gas when burned, and misfitting windows were installed, apparently without any firestopping of the gaps they created.
The firefighters union, the FBU, states that the same poisonous foam insulation had been banned from use in furniture after years of campaigning. On 8th May 1979, toxic fumes from plastic foam-filled furniture killed 10 people and left 47 injured in a fire at the Woolworths store in Manchester city centre.
Woolworths fire veteran Kevin Brown doubts if firefighters would be able to respond so speedily to a fire on the same site today. “There were 10 appliances at the scene within 10 minutes when Woolworths caught fire,” he says. “Now, since the cuts, four of those appliances have disappeared.”
After the Woolworths fire vigorous campaigning by the FBU and other fire safety experts, including enlightened chief fire officers, paved the way for vital safety changes as the death toll from toxic plastic fumes continued to mount in the 1980s. But it took another nine years and the deaths of 17 more children, killed by toxic fumes in their own homes, for the government to act. The Furniture and Furnishing (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 banned the use of polyurethane foam and other flammable insulation in household furniture. This made people safer in their homes and saved countless lives.
Mike Fordham, who retired from the FBU 12 years ago after a lifetime campaigning for improved fire safety, watched the live TV footage of flames shooting up the sides of Grenfell Tower. He later shared his thoughts which had turned immediately to earlier fire tragedies;
‘They’ve put the stuff we got banned from the inside of buildings on the outside of tower blocks … we got foam furniture banned for giving off horrendous toxic fumes and they went and lined the outside of tower blocks with similar stuff’.