Photo credit:  The Grenfell tower fire on June 14, 2017. Wikipedia Commons License
25 Jan 2023

High concentrations of toxins in high risefires like Grenfell possibly linked to firefighter cancer


Large fires involving synthetic materials create high levels of toxic contaminants. According to studies, the 2017 Grenfell high rise tower created unusual amounts of toxins in the air and in the ground surrounding the site.

Recent research during the last five years shows that firefighters absorb high levels of toxins through their skins, even when wearing full protection. This is largely due to exposure when handling used gear and equipment, or when eating and drinking during long calls. Exposure can possibly also come from chemicals used to fireproof and treat the turnout gear itself. 

In very large fires, especially when residents lives are a stake, firefighters have also been known to keep working without a breathing apparatus, after their air has run out. This can be a dangerous practice, even after all smoke has cleared and the fire has been extinguished, due to toxic concentrations in the remains of a building after the fire. 

The British newspaper The Mirror reported last week that at least 12, and possibly up to as many as 20 firefighters, who worked during the 60 hour long operation during the Grenfell fire, are now developing cancer. 

According to the article, and confirmed in the intro to a 2019 scientific survey on toxic exposure from the fire, many of the firefighters were in their contaminated turnout gear for more than 10 hours at a time. Some of them continued working despite running out of air in their breathing apparatuses, which may have led to unusual exposure to toxins. 

Because of the synthetic cladding on the outer walls, the levels of toxins are considered to have been higher than normal.

(Editorial note: Although a fire in any modern home produces high levels of toxins due to synthetic furniture and other plastics inside. In such a large fire, with so many apartments affected as in Grenfell, the levels of toxic exposure during the Grenfell disaster would likely have been high with or without the flammable cladding.)


12 firefighters serving at Grenfell allegedly have cancer - and the number could rise in coming years

The types of cancer, according to the Mirror investigation, are allegedly mostly digestive cancers and leukemia, which are very difficult to cure. Some of the firefighters are allegedly as young as in their early 40s. 

The Mirror did not reveal the names of their sources, but claimed to have been interviewing members of the fire services who were either involved in the fire, or involved in the health screenings.

 “We are expecting some really depressing data to be revealed soon. It’s shocking”, one of the fire service sources allegedly told the newspaper. 

The fear, according to the article, is that the cancer findings may only be "the tip of an iceberg" , since some cancers can take much longers to develop.  


The ground around the high rise contaminated with dangerous levels of toxins

The high levels of toxins around large fire sites like Grenfell, or the 911 twin tower disaster, can be measured through ground samples, and have in some cases turned out to be a health risk to the public, years after the incident. 

According to a 2019 study of the environmental impact of the Grenfell fire, the University of Central Lancashire found soil contamination from the disaster caused by the fire could lead to an increased risk of cancer and respiratory problems of those living in the area.

Analysis made of the of the soil, debris and also of the char buildup on the insulation boards used on the tower showed high concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals and carcinogens, including benzene, within a radius of 200m from the tower.

"Soil samples from 6 locations up to 1,2 km from the Tower, together with semi-burnt fire debris and char samples, were collected 1 and 6 months after the fire. Additionally, dust samples and condensates were collected from a flat 160 m away from the Tower after 17 months. Samples were analysed for common potentially toxic components of fire effluents and synthetic vitreous fibres", the study says about their methods of study. 


Wikipedia writes about the Grenfell Tower fire: 

"On 14 June 2017, a high-rise fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North KensingtonWest London, at 00:54 BST and burned for 60 hours. 72 people died, two later in hospital, with more than 70 injured and 223 escaping. It was the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the 1988 Piper Alpha oil-platform disaster and the worst UK residential fire since World War II.

The fire was started by an electrical fault in a refrigerator on the fourth floor.[note 1] This spread rapidly up the building's exterior, bringing flame and smoke to all residential floors, accelerated by dangerously combustible aluminium composite cladding and external insulation, with an air gap between them enabling the stack effect.

The fire was declared a major incident, with more than 250 London Fire Brigade firefighters and 70 fire engines from stations across London involved in efforts to control it and rescue residents. More than 100 London Ambulance Service crews on at least 20 ambulances attended, joined by specialist paramedics from the Ambulance Service's Hazardous Area Response Team."


Photo credit:  The Grenfell tower fire on June 14, 2017. Wikipedia Commons License