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Grenfell Tower: Toxins

Volume 793: debated on Monday 15 October 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take in response to concerns over the level of toxins found at the Grenfell Tower site and calls for survivors, firefighters and local residents to undergo immediate tests to monitor any damage to their DNA.

My Lords, human biomonitoring—the measurement of chemicals in biological tissue such as blood or saliva—cannot be used to determine whether those who were exposed to contaminants in the incident 16 months ago suffered any damage. That is because results from this type of analysis provide information on total exposure over many years which could be influenced by a multitude of factors not related to a specific period of exposure. In addition, there would not be a baseline—that is, results prior to the fire—against which to compare new results. Consequently, Public Health England does not recommend human biomonitoring in this scenario, although other environmental monitoring continues to take place.

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether it is true that Professor Anna Stec, a world-leading expert on toxicology, has privately urged Public Health England and the Department of Health to organise a range of tests to ensure that any potential health risks can be properly assessed and that Public Health England has decided not to do that until receipt of Professor Stec’s report some time next year? Is he also aware of reports of what is being called the “Grenfell cough”, which Professor Stec has said seems to indicate a high level of atmospheric contaminants?

The Government are of course very concerned about all the consequences for mental and physical health that may result from the Grenfell fire. As the noble Lord will know, there has been a huge concerted effort to try to ameliorate those.

The noble Lord asked about environmental monitoring. Since summer 2017, monitoring has been ongoing, with weekly reports published by the London Air Quality Network, which is operated by King’s College London and is, therefore, at arm’s length from government. The reports provide information on the levels of particulates, asbestos and other contaminants in the air. The London Air Quality Network has found no evidence that the levels are above average for London, but monitoring continues. Public Health England is in discussions with the local authority and the local NHS trust to make sure that any signs of public health threats, from whichever area they emerge, are looked into seriously. However, we have not yet had those findings from the professor, and Public Health England is very keen to see that information as soon as possible.

My Lords, the concentration has been on the chemical effects of the tower cladding. Does the Minister appreciate that thousands—and I mean thousands—of chemicals are involved in furniture and furnishings being burned? While the air may be clear, I understand that the soil has been contaminated, and it is not just by inhalation that people can be poisoned but also by skin absorption. Will the Minister please ensure that GPs and others treating people from this area are closely monitored? It is not necessary for them to have blood tests but, if their health deteriorates, as much as possible must be done to help them.

I completely agree with the noble Countess that toxins can be found in different media, soil and air being two of those. That is why Public Health England is keen to see the results from Professor Stec’s work. She has said that it is not yet finished, and we need to see its outcomes. It is one of many pieces of work going on to make sure that, if there are any concerns about the near environment, they are spotted and dealt with before they turn into public health threats.

Does the Minister agree that it is understandable that residents who were involved in the dreadful Grenfell fire, and the emergency responders, are additionally anxious having read reports in the national papers and other media that carcinogenic toxins have been found by the investigating professor, and that additional anxiety is exactly what they do not need? Does he agree that it is therefore important that the Government, through Public Health England and other institutions, respond in a positive way to their fears? I understand that, at the moment, the Government are expecting people to wait for six or 12 months, but those involved are anxious that carcinogenic toxins resulting from the fire will impinge on their good health.

I completely concur with the noble Baroness on the levels of anxiety. We know that a number of people who are affected, directly and indirectly, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The north-west London NHS trust, which delivers mental health services, is dealing with thousands of people, not just those who live locally but those who worked on the site of the fire. I agree that there is a need to reassure people, wherever possible, who have been through this difficult and traumatic experience. I encourage the noble Baroness and all noble Lords to look at the environmental monitoring report on the ongoing levels, which is published weekly. It provides a huge amount of detail and is carried out independently. It does not, at this stage show any cause for concern regarding higher-than-average levels of asbestos, of which none has been found, and other toxins. However, that monitoring has to continue, and as soon as any sign is captured and verified as being statistically significant, it needs to be acted on. That is why we are so keen to see the professor’s work.

My Lords, the Minister indicated that we should wait for the formal publication of Professor Stec’s report. However, she has briefed officials in a variety of agencies about the dangers that she thinks are apparent. Given that toxins have been found up to a mile away from the Grenfell Tower site, and given that the absorption of toxins through the skin is a serious danger—which it seems is not being checked for—would it not have been wise for NHS England, which must have been aware of this pending report, to have announced last week that, rather than just provide screening for survivors to assess the effects of smoke inhalation, it would assess for skin absorption of toxic material?

It is not about waiting for the report. Public Health England met with Professor Stec in February of this year and asked for specific details of her research. Repeat requests have been made and I am told by Public Health England that it has yet to receive those details. Of course, there is a need to get good information and to make sure it is reliable, so those requests continue. I can reassure the noble Lord that no one is waiting around looking for information and that extensive monitoring is going on. That kind of information is requested because if there are causes for concern—as seems to be the case from the media reports—they can be investigated urgently.