Grenfell biomonitoring ‘would scare residents’, says government

The government has rejected MPs’ calls to monitor human contamination from the Grenfell Tower fire, ban hazardous substances from food packaging and introduce a labelling system for chemicals in consumer products.

The response to this summer’s report into toxic chemicals in everyday life from the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) was released this morning, to coincide with the publication of the official report into the disaster, despite being ready since mid-September.

In common with experts and residents, the MPs had recommended that a “comprehensive biomonitoring programme for local residents” be established as soon as possible, “including specific monitoring for the effects of exposure to fire effluents”.

However, the response states that such a programme “could cause unnecessary concern to an already distressed community.” Confounding factors such as lifestyle and environmental factors could significantly influence the data obtained, so it is “not usually possible to determine whether contaminants detected can be directly associated with the fire”, it adds.

The response angered EAC chair Mary Creagh, who said the government had “utterly failed Grenfell residents in the aftermath of the disaster. Rejecting our call for a comprehensive biomonitoring scheme - which would reassure Grenfell’s traumatised community- is another example of public authorities’ complacent and patronising attitude towards residents after the fire.”

One of the few recommendations that the government has accepted is that cancers most commonly suffered by firefighters should be presumed to be industrial injuries. Evidence of a rise in cancer among them in recent decades is currently being investigated by the Fire Brigades Union and Professor Anna Stec, who had also looked into the contamination of land around Grenfell Tower.

The government says that it will refer the proposal to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which advises ministers on eligibility for the industrial injuries disablement benefit. It has also not ruled out adding a smoke toxicity standard for building materials in the Building Regulations, which are currently under review. This could potentially rule out the use of polyurethane insulation, which can produce choking smoke during a fire.

Packaging

The committee backed CHEM Trust’s request for all substances of very high concern (SVHCs) under REACH to be banned from food packaging automatically, which the government rejected as “perhaps overly simplistic”.

The response says that current rules provide adequate protection for human health and that SVHCs can “provide essential functions, such as preventing certain materials from corroding or reacting with the food it is in contact with.” This appears to be a reference to endocrine-disrupting bisphenol A, which is used to make epoxy resin linings in food cans.

The MPs’ suggested that consumer products should display basic information on their chemical content, namely the broad types of substances present, backed with pictograms. “We believe these changes would be a small step towards full chemical disclosure and would assist consumers in making more informed decisions at the point of purchase,” their report said.

The response notes that chemical content of cosmetics is already displayed on packaging, and the Office for Product Safety and is considering how the flame retardant content of furniture should be labelled. But the Health and Safety Executive is unconvinced about the need for broader reform, and changes to chemical labelling would have to be implemented at UN-level, in any case, says the response.

Flame retardants

Flame retardants are only present in British upholstery due to the discredited Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988. Many of these chemicals have been banned, with more set to come.

The law’s flammability tests provide little protection against fire and the chemicals used to secure compliance, alongside widely-used polyurethane foam stuffing, produce toxic smoke. The MPs called on the UK to scrap the regulations and adopt the same approach to flammability testing used in most of Europe. This can be met readily without flame retardants.

Under pressure from the committee, the government responded to its second consultation on reforming the regulations in July. It came almost three years since publication and revealed that entirely different proposals would be consulted on, to be developed in concert with the British Standards Institution (BSI).

However, Terry Edge, the former civil servant responsible for the regulations, since turned whistleblower, told ENDS that the BSI committee that would be responsible for the new work has still not been formally requested to undertake it. He also said that its chair with whom he developed the first consultation on reforming the law, has rejected the idea as being beyond the committee’s remit – echoing a similar refusal four years ago. BSI has not commented on the matter.

Furthermore, government lawyers made the decision six years ago that British standards should not form the basis of meeting the regulations’ requirements, said Edge. He added that the BSI committee “is almost entirely composed of industry representatives, without even a government member” – an issue that EAC chair Mary Creagh warned could lead to “a lobbyist’s stitch up”.

Both criticised the deadline for agreeing the new regulations by autumn 2021, Creagh for representing another delay and Edge for being “completely unworkable”, given what would need to be done.

Broader lessons appear not to have been learned from the long delay in reforming the law. The MPs wanted the Cabinet Office to apply formal time limits on responding to consultations, with penalties for departments that fail to comply.

The government’s reply essentially states that how departments and their ministers take decisions and engage with stakeholders is a matter for them.

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