Transparency and Trust: The failure to respond to concerns about air & soil contamination post-Grenfell

A report by Prof. Anna Stec’s et al into air and soil contamination post Grenfell was recently published. It finds:

Samples collected within 140 m of the Tower showed, amongst other toxicants, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin concentrations 60 times greater than UK urban reference soil levels; benzene levels were 40 times greater; levels of 6 key polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were approximately 160 times greaterPAHs levels are approximately 20 times greater than those reported from nearby Hyde Park before the fire.

Environmental contamination following the Grenfell Tower fire
Anna A.Stec, Kathryn Dickens, Jessica L.J.Barnes. ClareBedford (Emphasis added)

Concerns around the health impacts, often referencing the now infamous ‘Grenfell cough’ have been raised by the local community since the day of the fire. Flora Cornish, from the London School of Economics, has created a timeline from available public documents laying out the events and responses to concerns of toxicity.

It provides a startling insight into the lack of response by the Local Authority (RBKC) and Public Health England. Most notably…

On February 8th 2018 Anna Stec made findings available to authorities raising concerns and recommending monitoring and testing of local residents. Nothing was communicated publicly for six months – when the the Guardian broke the story in September 2018. This further eroded trust between the community and authorities.

Timeline of toxicity concerns Grenfell
Timeline of response to Concerns about Toxicity

Calls for screening of those close to the fire appear to have been ignored. In September 2018, Fiona Wilcox, coroner investigating the deaths following the Grenfell Tower fire, issued a ‘report to prevent future deaths’ (PFD) calling for health screening given a concern that some survivors and responders had been exposed to toxins and are at risk of developing health conditions. As with Public Inquiries, there is no process for ensuring that recommendations from such reports are either implemented or are effective.

Two years after the fire, no screening programme is in place. Advice to anybody concerned is ‘consult your doctor’.

As I was researching this, I came across a Guardian article about the, largely unknown, response to Chernobyl which essentially created a second radioactive zone in Southern Belarus. People lived in this zone for 15 years with contamination levels as high as the official zone.

The public health records are now available for Chernobyl, and show that after the accident, people living in these areas were two to three times more likely to fall ill from cancers, respiratory illness, anaemia, auto-immune disorders, birth defects, and fertility problems, than before the accident.

In one town Veprin, just six of 70 children in 1990 were characterised as “healthy”. The children, on average, had in their bodies 8,498 bq/kg of radioactive caesium (20 bq/kg is considered safe).

In the more recent (2014) Flint water crisis in Michigan, 100,000 residents were exposed to elevated lead levels due to the drinking water source being changed to a less costly source the Flint River.

These events have made me think about the impact of a lack of transparency by officials in situations like this. I’m sure there is an argument for officials not wanting to alarm people, however, when people are afraid, the consequences they imagine are likely to be at least as bad as, if not worse, than the reality.

As a local resident in North Kensington, I would rather know the potential implications of having been exposed to toxins after Grenfell. I would rather be treated as an adult who both deserves to know the truth and who will work in partnership with authorities to design an appropriate response.

The lack of communication and transparency revealed in Flora Cornish’s timeline erodes trust. It also infantilises the community and entrenches existing power relationships.

Transparency and dialogue would build trust. It would require re-imagining traditional power dynamics and relationships and would demand skilful leadership both from authorities and the community.

This has implications far beyond Grenfell. We are getting better at understanding the impacts of contaminants and toxins. For example pollution – as evidenced by the recent decision to hold fresh inquest into the death of 9 year old Ella Kissi-Debrah whose fatal asthma attack may have been linked to air pollution. Or the emerging evidence of increased health risks to firefighters.

These issues are not going away. If we are to engage effectively with them we need to re-examine how we can do so in a way that creates rather than erodes trust. This will require re-imagining traditional power relationships, real dialogue and inquiry and skilful leadership.

Gill Kernick, May 2019, All rights reserved

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