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The hidden toxicity of fire

Most people think that when a fire is put out the dangers are gone. Former fire investigator, Andy Vaughan-Davies, tells us why that is not always the case.

Posted on 12 August 2019

On 29th July 2019 the environmental defence association, Robin des Bois, filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor alleging lead pollution in the environment caused by the fire which destroyed the Notre-Dame de Paris.

According to confidential documents seen by the French investigative media organisation Mediapart, levels of lead concentration 400 to 700 times the maximum authorised limit have been detected in the ground inside and around Notre-Dame cathedral since the fire that destroyed it in April.  Last week a nursery and school near Notre-Dame had to be closed because high levels of lead were found in their shared playground.

In relation to the Grenfell Tower Fire, Professor Anna Stec, who is a Professor in Fire Chemistry and Toxicology at the University of Central Lancashire, was instructed as an expert witness by the Grenfell Public Inquiry to determine the fire derived toxicants and related deposits present in the Tower and their origins.  Her paper titled “Environmental contamination following the Grenfell fire” was published on 29th March 2019 and comments “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 risks”. She is reported to have found levels of cancer-causing chemicals that were 160 times higher in the North Kensington area than normal.

After the Inquest into the Grenfell Tower Block fire was opened, Her Majesty’s Coroner, Fiona Wilcox, issued a Prevention of Future Deaths Report to the Chief Executive of NHS England relating to 71 people who tragically died in that fire.  She raised concerns including there being no structured health screening for those exposed to the risks of smoke and dust inhalation and that they are at risk of developing health conditions, in particular respiratory illness after particulate and poison inhalation. In addition, she raised concerns regarding asbestos exposure which could possibly cause late onset health issues such as mesothelioma.

Coroner Wilcox highlighted that without an appropriate system of health screening there is a risk that illness may arise unnoticed or present later in survivors, first responders and site workers and thus reduce their life expectancy.  Additionally, she recognised that the NHS needs to co-ordinate and provide appropriate mental health support for all those affected by their involvement in the incident, be they survivors, bereaved, local residents or first responders or other workers involved in the aftermath.  The potential impact of this disaster is very wide ranging.  She recognised the physical and psychological consequences of the fire. The Coroner’s prevention of Future Deaths report highlights the reality and consequences of fire on whatever scale it occurs.

Professor Anna Stec’s research, published in February 2018, also highlights the elevated cancer risk to firefighters.

Regrettably it was reported on 2nd August 2019 that Professor Anna Stec has resigned from the Grenfell Scientific Advisory Group (SAG).  It has been reported that she has warned the Chair of SAG that “There are still a significant number of people suffering physically and mentally following the Grenfell Tower fire, and yet, there is still nothing in place to properly evaluate all the adverse health effects of the fire, and specifically exposure to fire effluents.” She also called for indoor testing, including tests of dust and other deposits from the fire in people's homes to get under way as soon as possible after an open competition to find experts to do the tests.

These two devastating, tragic fires have highlighted the potential hazards of smoke toxicity. This is relevant to every fire, whether it originates in a factory, industrial unit, tower block, cathedral or your home.

The toxic smoke and effluents produced in house fires condenses and deposits on every surface, crevice and orifice that it touches.  The toxic mixture of chemicals and gasses contained in fire smoke can include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, arsenic, and many, many more.

No matter the size of the fire, the issues are the same.  Fires originating in white goods such as tumble dryers, washing machines, dishwashers and fridge freezers produce acrid toxic smoke and fumes due to the plastic components used in the construction.  Fridge freezer insulation is made from polyurethane foam and London Fire Brigade research highlights the dangers of the smoke or fire effluent produced: intense heat along with black smoke and toxic gases (including carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, carbon dioxide and depleted oxygen) severely endangers life and devastates property when a refrigeration appliance becomes involved in a fire in the home. 

The hazards of the smoke caused by a fire are often overlooked.  The fires at Notre Dame de Paris and Grenfell Tower are raising awareness of the contamination that can be left in the aftermath of a fire.  However, I believe that this needs to be more publically recognised and factored into relevant risk assessments.  It also needs to be dealt with promptly to protect those who have survived the original inferno. As a society, we need to acknowledge serious fires as potential environmental disasters that can have long term consequences.


Andrew Vaughan Davies

Andrew Vaughan-Davies

Former fire investigation officer now works in the product safety team