Last week, it was revealed that cancer-causing chemicals and other harmful toxins had been found in the area surrounding Grenfell Tower, almost two years on from the catastrophic fire in which 72 people died. A number of families who lost their homes in the tragedy are still waiting to be permanently rehoused – nearly 100 families as of last December – and there is an ongoing health risk to survivors and other residents of the west London community.
An independent study led by Professor Anna Stec, who analysed soil samples and fire debris, suggested that contaminated soil caused by the fire could increase people's risk of cancer and result in respiratory problems, including asthma. In one flat, 160 metres from the tower's charred remains, researchers found dust and oily deposits containing isocyanates – which can lead to asthma in a single exposure – 17 months after the fire.
Professor Stec said there was now a pressing need for "further in-depth, independent analysis to quantify any risks to residents" and their long-term health, and that of emergency responders and clean-up workers. Groups campaigning on behalf of survivors and bereaved families also expressed concern, with Natasha Elcock, chair of Grenfell United, describing the report as "alarming and hugely upsetting to read".
"Twenty-one months after the fire, the government has yet to carry out a single soil test or offer a proper health screening programme to the community," Elcock continued, echoing the many residents and survivors who believe the government should have done more to investigate the health impact of the tragedy's aftermath. (Professor Stec launched her study of her own accord with a team from the University of Central Lancashire.)
A spokesperson for the UK government told Refinery29 it is taking Professor Stec’s findings "extremely seriously," adding that it will use them to inform the checks the government is conducting. “We are committed to keeping the community safe and safeguarding their long-term health. Anyone living near Grenfell Tower who is concerned as a result of this news should speak to their GP, who will arrange for additional health checks to be carried out.”
Hanna (her name has been changed to protect her identity), a 22-year-old student, lives roughly 600 metres away from Grenfell Tower with her parents and brother, and has done for 20 years. Ahead, she shares her story of living in the shadow of Grenfell Tower with Refinery29.
"It's awful and upsetting knowing that we're putting our health at risk by living here. The fire was heartbreaking, and to know that the community who were devastated by it could be further harmed by the chemicals enrages me. As if people haven’t suffered enough. Everyone nearby should be given medical attention to ensure that any health changes are noted and treated where possible. It should be a priority to relocate residents somewhere nearby to ensure they can stay within their communities, but are safe from the effects of the chemicals.
We are all disgusted by the news of the contamination. In our eyes, the fire was preventable and therefore the dangers from the chemicals were too, and people who have lived within this community shouldn't have to continue suffering. No one I know has told me they would leave because of it, but if it was a realistic prospect, they might. I can definitely see why people would want to leave after hearing this news. I personally wouldn’t consider leaving the area, because I 'fortunately' – if you will – live slightly more than 200 metres away from the tower.
Honestly, in general it’s upsetting living so close to it. Although the remains are covered, it still reminds me that so many innocent people lost their lives, families and homes through no fault of their own, and in a situation that should never have happened. I see it whatever direction I take to get home, and I always think about it.
The views and wishes of people from wealthier backgrounds are always prioritised.
I don’t think the council or government have done enough to help the local community. I understand there's a process but it’s too slow and unfair. It shows that people who come from backgrounds that aren't wealthy end up suffering more during tragedies like this. Although this may be a rare incident, it doesn’t stop the fact that certain communities are still not receiving the materials that wealthier people are. The cladding wasn’t safe, yet appearances took precedence, which highlights the lack of care for the people who lived there.
If the area immediately surrounding the tower was more heavily populated by rich, powerful people, I don't believe it would still pose such a dangerous health risk. The views and wishes of people from wealthier backgrounds are always prioritised. This makes no sense to me, as they have the means of protecting themselves, while people from other backgrounds don't and need to be cared for.
I have a friend who lives even closer to the tower than I do. They are still so angry and upset about what’s happened. The whole community has felt the pain and loss.
To this day, the community stands strong together and the love for Grenfell and each other is always present. You just need to walk down a single road to see the colour of green or words of support and it’s something truly remarkable. Members of the community have shown their strength, unity and support with one another without the council or government, which is inspiring.
That being said, I think there should be a focus on providing services and resources for young people in the community. Young people need a space where they can support one another. This used to be present in the community and it was a success, so bringing it back would really benefit young people."