Grenfell Tower, a huge housing block in Kensington, caught fire last night and is still burning. About a dozen people so far have died, and around 40 injured. A reporter I know phoned today to talk about it and said he thought the timing might be suspicious.
The clouds of dark smoke pouring out of the tower are that colour mainly because of flame retardants - and that smoke will include hydrogen cyanide. And yet not one single person has mentioned this in the media, even though hundreds of people, including firefighters have been breathing it in for hours. Which may or may not be a great sleight of hand act on the part of the FR industry. On which point, there was an article in the Guardian yesterday by Dr Malcolm Tunnicliff, who dealt with 12 casualties from the fire. He says:
"We knew in advance that it was a fire in an enclosed space so we also knew there was a real risk of cyanide poisoning from foam in older furniture burning. So we had lots of cyano kits – which contain the antidote to cyanide poisoning – ready and waiting to give people. Happily tests shows that none of them had; that was a relief."
I find this suspicious - first that he would be talking at all to the press and offering views on the fire before there's been any kind of investigation. Second, that he mentions burning furniture foam as a possible source of cyanide poisoning but does so wrongly, i.e. while foam in older (by which I suspect he means pre-1988 when the Regulations came in) was toxic when burned, modern foam is far more toxic because it contains FRs. Third, he claims victims were tested for cyanide but I thought that diagnoses of blood for cyanide poisoning takes quite some time. [We also learned later blood tests were taken from none of the survivors. I wrote to Dr Tunnicliff about his statements but he did not reply.]
Some possible issues/factors:
- Richard Hull has just given a talk at BFR 2017 on his work that proves a sofa treated with FRs is more toxic than an untreated sofa. The FR industry as usual was present; also present, and not usual, was Dave Sibert of the FBU.
- The Fire Safety Order 2005 removed the requirement upon the 'responsible person' to get a professional fire risk assessment made of his property - which is part of the general issue of industry gradually weakening safety requirements.
- TV says that every one of the survivors suffered from smoke inhalation; none from fires/burns, which means we need protection from toxic smoke produced by burning FRs more than from fire. When I mentioned this to Steve Owen earlier today he said, "Well, obviously," but it's not obvious to most of the population and those who advise them on fire safety.
The reporter who phoned me wants to do a big story on toxic smoke and furniture, bringing in Richard Hull's research, showing that the Furniture Regs can be used as a good/bad example of failing fire safety requirements, i.e. they don't work; don't increase escape time; produce highly toxic fumes.
I also have some dark thoughts that I do not want to fully express, even in this journal. But I'm concerned that if BEIS finally decides to implement a new match test that will hugely reduce FRs in furniture cover fabrics, which in turn may lead to getting rid of them altogether (as in the US and rest of the EU), then, thinking backwards, the FR industry will do anything to make sure that doesn't happen. It's a BEIS move that might be triggered by Richard Hull's BFR talk and forthcoming paper on the same subject. The FR industry lost its US market then failed in its attempts to gain the EU market, and is at risk of losing its main supporter, the UK - at a time when it is trying to build new markets in India, Africa and Asia. And if it transpires that FRs killed many if not most of the people in Grenfell Tower when they and the Furniture Regs don't work, well, that would be very seriously damaging. Not just for the FR industry itself but also for those who get paid to promote it, including fire services officials and at least one BEIS official. In this respect, it will be very interesting to see if attention regarding the Grenfell fire remains everywhere but on burning furniture.