Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2019.


Study finds high levels of cancer-causing toxins near site of Grenfell Tower fire.


A new study has found abnormally high levels of chemicals known to cause cancer and other health problems near the site of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. Researchers are urging that steps be taken to further evaluate the health risk these chemicals pose to people living in the area, and to those who responded to the fire and and cleaned up after it.

Researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in England conducted the study, published by the journal Chemosphere in March.

“There is undoubtedly evidence of contamination in the area surrounding the tower, which highlights the need for further in-depth, independent analysis to quantify any risks to residents,” Anna Stec, lead author of the study and professor of fire chemistry and toxicity at UCLan, said in a statement released by the university. “It is now crucial to put in place long-term health screening to assess any long-term adverse health effects of the fire on local residents, emergency responders, and cleanup workers. This will also provide a future readiness for dealing with any further such disasters.”

Just one month after the massive blaze—which burned in the 24-story Grenfell Tower apartment building in June 2017, killing 72 people in what became the deadliest fire in modern British history—UCLan researchers discovered that char samples from balconies on buildings roughly 160 to 330 feet from Grenfell Tower were contaminated with cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This led to further research that analyzed soil samples up to three-quarters of a mile from Grenfell. The results of that research appear in the new study, and show that cancer-causing chemicals are present in soil near the site of the fire at levels as high as 160 times above normal.

“Samples collected within 140m [460 feet] 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 [six] key polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were approximately 160 times greater,” the study reads. “Particulate and pyrogenic contamination in the immediate vicinity is clearly evident, and may have leached out of fire debris, char, and dust. Further analysis of the area around the Tower is necessary to understand potential health risk.”

The study goes on to draw parallels between the Grenfell Tower fire and the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, from which first responders, cleanup workers, and others continue to die of cancer linked to the chemicals that were present in the debris of Ground Zero. In the two years following the Grenfell Tower fire, those living in the area have complained of symptoms including vomiting, coughing up blood, skin abnormalities, and difficulty breathing, according to BBC News. The government maintains the health risk from the chemicals is “generally very low,” the BBC reported.

The size and speed of the fire that destroyed Grenfell were attributed to flammable plastics present in exterior wall components that had been added to the tower as part of a renovation project in 2016. An NFPA Journal story published following the fire found that similar conditions likely exist in many buildings around the world. In response to the blaze, NFPA released a number of resources to help stem the worldwide problem of fires involving combustible exterior wall components.

Access these resources at


Yancheng, China

Chemical explosion is the latest industrial disaster to hit China

On March 21, an explosion at a chemical plant in the city of Yancheng in eastern China killed over 60 people, injured more than 600 others, and set off a toxic inferno that firefighters struggled to contain. According to Chinese media reports, the explosion occurred after a truck carrying natural gas caught fire, and the flames reached an area where the flammable chemical benzene was stored.

Relatives look for missing workers at the site of a pesticide plant that exploded and burned in Yancheng, China.

MOUNTING ANGER Relatives look for a missing worker at the site of a pesticide plant that exploded and burned in Yancheng, China, in March. More than 60 people died in the incident and an estimated 600 were injured. Photograph: Reuters

The incident was the latest in a series of industrial explosions and fires that have plagued the country for years. In November 2018, explosions killed 23 people at a chemical manufacturing plant in Zhangjiakou. In 2015, a number of notable industrial explosions and fires occurred, the most significant being a blast at a chemical warehouse in the port city of Tianjin in August, which killed 165 people. In the weeks following the recent blast in Yancheng, two more industrial explosions in the country killed at least 11 people.

“Public anger over safety standards has grown in China after three decades of swift economic growth has been marred by accidents ranging from mining disasters to factory fires,” Reuters reported. “China has vowed to improve industrial standards, but environmentalists say they fear oversight weaknesses persist, including an opaque production process for hazardous chemicals.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images