Update, August 2017:
Fire Magazine's August/September 2017 edition focusses on the Grenfell Tower fire and contains my article on the ineffectiveness of the Furniture Regulations and the role that burning furniture played in the tragedy. You can read it here: 2017-08_fire_magazine_terry_edge.pdf.
GRENFELL TOWER FIRE
Burning furniture played a major role in the production of huge amounts of toxic fumes, including hydrogen cyanide, in the Grenfell Tower fire. This has been picked up only sporadically by the press so far. Cyanide from the burning cladding on the outside of the tower has been given more attention and has not been disputed. But burning furniture would have produced far more cyanide inside the tower.
As can be seen from this site, the UK's furniture regulations are ineffective, which means furniture burns quicker than it should do and when it does, releases cyanide in greater amounts than is necessary (if the regulations had been fixed in 2014 when the government first had the chance to do so).
Below are my reflections on a public meeting of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry team held on 25th July 2017. Below that is my email to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Below that are some emails between myself and Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. I will add other material in due course.
Update: as of 28 August Matt Wrack has not replied to let me know what the FBU has done about the serious situation I brought to their attention. He may or may not be aware that a senior FBU official played a large part in preventing the Furniture Regulations from being updated and made safe. This is the same official who told me that he didn't believe there was any problem with flame retardants. The flame retardant industry, of course, has provided hundreds of thousands of euros in funding to fire officials, in return for supporting their products. There is hard evidence of this in the public domain regarding fire officials who have retired from the fire service to run 'fire safety' organisations which heavily promote more flame retardants. That the flame retardant industry would approach and make offers to currently serving fire officials is of course speculation.
Grenfell Tower Inquiry, public meeting, "Terms of Reference", 25th July 2017
Walking to Notting Hill Methodist Church from Latimer Road tube station, two things strike me. The first is the stark contrast between the utilitarian blocks of flats and the pretty houses that run between and around them - mostly Victorian cottages painted in the tasteful colours of the middle-class. The average price of a three-bedroom terraced house in Treadgold Street, for example, is over two million pounds. I will see very few residents at the meeting later that strike me as having that sort of cash to spend on a home. London is of course a patchwork of poor areas rubbing shoulders with richer parts but I don't recall seeing them as intertwined as this before.
The second is when I turn a corner by the Leisure Centre and suddenly Grenfell Tower fills the sky. I've seen it countless times on TV but this is a huge shock. It looms like a blackened skeleton, gaping eye sockets and jaw cavities everywhere. The utter devastation it portrays is all the more shocking in contrast today with the surrounding intact buildings, and the children playing happily outside the centre.
Some believe the fire was created deliberately, to free up land for the rich. If so, it's deeply disturbing to consider that the arsonists might look at this massive corpse without feeling any empathy for the many deaths they caused, of the most painful and pointless kind.
By the time the meeting begins, the large room on the second floor of the church is full with around two hundred people. Immediately, and throughout, there is a stark contrast between the five Inquiry team members sitting in a line at the front and the public facing them.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the Chair, is tall and white with grey hair, supported by a team of lawyers, also clearly formerly educated, mostly white, just one who looks partly Asian. By contrast, the public covers a wide spectrum, with a minority of whites. And while the team is dressed formally, everyone else is mostly dressed in their normal attire which is also covers a huge range of expression.
Sir Martin and his team introduce themselves, very briefly it has to be said. Sir Martin is also brief in his introduction of what this meeting is about. One of the residents will later point this out, that the team have not told us where they personally stand about the disaster, only giving predictable statements about getting to the bottom of what happened.
This is one of several key demarcation points that the careful, well-educated, team clearly miss. There is of course the reasonable view that an inquiry team should not be driven by emotion; just the facts. However, that doesn't prevent them from, for example, speaking from their own deep-felt drive to see justice prevail. But we don't hear anything like that from any of them.
Another key demarcation point occurs early on, when Sir Martin promises to 'consider' one of the issues that a resident raises. He is immediately picked up on this by residents, pointing out that he needs to 'investigate' not just consider. Sir Robert claims he means the same thing. But I think this is a subconscious slip on his part, that the residents were too wise to miss. I know from my civil servant days just how useful the word 'consider' is, especially to Ministers. They love to tell correspondents that they will 'consider' their problem, because of course that means they don't actually have to do anything about it.
Many residents point out the lack of residents' representation on the Inquiry team, that and the obvious gulf between the demographic of the team and the residents. Every time this subject is raised, the team nods thoughtfully but never once offers any solution. At one point, as a particularly well-informed and articulate resident is speaking, it occurs to me that Sir Martin could gain a massive amount of credence if he invited her to join the team on the spot. But then almost immediately I realise that the fact he won't is actually the point, i.e. they really do not want residents on the team.
Some residents speak off the point; others are very accusatory; many are articulate, passionate, and well-informed.
One woman speaks very clearly and powerfully about the 'criminal ring' behind the fire. She says she has been researching this subject for 40 years. She has, for example, discovered that Kensington Council changed its insurer for the Tower three months before the fire, the new cover to include a huge payout for 'casualties'. She also talks about Agenda 21, the elite's plans for population reduction, the Georgia Guidestones and a lot more. I find the audiences' reactions to this very interesting.
Now, if this was a well-educated, middle-class audience she would no doubt be ridiculed for giving credence to 'conspiracy theories'. This response perhaps displaying the somewhat black and white thinking that tends to develop from a more formal, not to say establishment-approved, education. By contrast, only one person in the hall shouts out about conspiracy theories, most of the others applauding her or make supporting noises. I don't think for a minute this means everyone agrees with everything she has said. However, it possibly displays a less black-and-white approach, in that they can at least support her commitment to uncovering the truth (at great personal cost, by the sound of things) and its anti-establishment core.
Another thread of discontent that is incredibly frustrating for the residents is to see plainly that what Sir Martin is saying in effect is that the Inquiry doesn't have any powers to prosecute; can't raise criminal proceedings; probably won't be interviewing those who are perhaps most responsible for safety cuts (like David Cameron, as one resident suggests); can't give a deadline or say where the inquiry will go. He confirms one resident's research that there has never been a prosecution for corporate manslaughter - let alone corporate murder which is what many consider is the case with Grenfell.
Someone says that all they're going to produce, therefore, is another report that will sit on a shelf gathering dust with all the other reports.
The subject of cyanide poisoning is raised a few times, but only in connection with the outside cladding. This reminds me that there is still some way to go before it will be fully recognised that in fact the largest source of cyanide in the tower was burning sofas and mattresses. But that can wait for another day. This meeting is for the residents to push, once again, for a fair and open inquiry into an event that has ended a large number of lives - the final count still not provided by the authorities, as many residents point out tonight - and had a devastating effect on the lives of many more.
This morning I had a long chat with one of the lawyers of BME Lawyers 4 Grenfell, who suggested I attend the meeting. The following day, they sent an excellent letter to Sir Martin, which points to possible breaches of the Equality Act regarding the non-diverse composition of the Inquiry team; includes a list of suggested experts for the Advisory Panel; and recommends Terms of Reference which are much more in keeping with residents' needs than what has so far been suggested by Sir Martin.
The letter states:
"The community will not be patronised and seeks answers, through us as well as others. We therefore raise the following questions to which answers are sought, whether directly from you or others:
1. Please outline the criteria that was deemed necessary for the post of Chair of this Inquiry;
2. Please outline the criteria that was deemed necessary for the posts of members of the Inquiry Team and its Secretariat;
3. Please outline the process by which you were selected;
4. Please outline the process by which the legal members of your Inquiry Team were selected;
5. Please outline the process by which member of Secretariat to the Inquiry Team were selected;
6. If an open and fair system of selection, such as open advertising of any of the posts were not undertaken, please explain why it was felt that there should be no consultation or competition"
All of which sounds perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, for me the tenor of the Inquiry team tonight has been one of overall patronisation - not consciously, of course. But shown via the complete absence of natural and heartfelt reaction to the requests being put to them, requests born out of sheer pain of loss and a desperate need for answers. Instead, there has been little other than professional and well-practiced looks of 'concern' and 'patience'.
My email to the Inquiry
----- Original Message -----
From: Terry Edge
Sent: Friday, July 14, 2017 5:53 PM
Subject: Contribution of faulty furniture flammability Regulations
A very important issue that I believe the Inquiry needs to look into is the contribution made to the Grenfell Tower fire by the fact that the UK's Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 (FFRs) are faulty and largely ineffective. The government has known about this for at least three years. Indeed, in 2014 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (now BEIS) proposed measures that would make the Regulations fire-safe. But these changes are being blocked by industry for costs reasons.
The hundreds of sofas and mattresses in the Tower would have released hydrogen cyanide in large amounts upon ignition, as a result of the flame retardant chemicals used to meet the requirements of the FFRs, and burned more quickly due to the faults with the FFRs.
Professor Richard Hull - who has been appearing regularly in the media, talking about the Grenfell Tower cladding - will soon be publishing the results of his research into the burning properties of furniture. He has already summarised this work at a recent conference on flame retardants by stating that a UK sofa treated with flame retardant chemicals (as is normal) is actually more dangerous than an EU sofa that hasn't been treated. This is because any additional escape time provided by flame retardants is easily outweighed by the effects of the toxic fumes they give off very soon after a sofa catches fire.
The first confirmed reports of cyanide poisoning in Tower victims are just appearing the press. The media is reporting that there were internal sources of cyanide, such as plastics and insulation. However, the largest source would have been sofas and mattresses.
I would welcome the chance to discuss this further with you.
Correspondence with Matt Wrack of the FBU
(I will post any further response from Matt Wrack. Please note, I have edited slightly my first email to Matt Wrack to remove some personal information).
----- Original Message -----
From: Terry Edge
To: Matt Wrack
Sent: Sunday, July 23, 2017 3:39 PM
Subject: Re: Grenfell Tower and toxic smoke
I wondered if the FBU has had a chance to examine this issue any further yet.
I've been working with a major TV company who are investigating the problems with flame retardants and the Furniture Regulations. Some of our group are also soon to meet other parts of the fire service who are have become very concerned about this. While there are obvious priorities regarding Grenfell Tower, the contribution made to toxic smoke by the failures of the Regulations is increasingly being examined.
The FBU has made quite a few public statements recently regarding regulatory issues around Grenfell Tower. Representatives of the FBU have taken part throughout the review of the Furniture Regulations (began in 2010 and still not concluded) and on a number of occasions expressed views to the Ministers at BES/BEIS, either directly or though civil servants. Any update on these views would be very welcome.
----- Original Message -----
From: Matt Wrack
To: Terry Edge
Sent: Wednesday, June 21, 2017 7:46 PM
Subject: RE: Grenfell Tower and toxic smoke
Thanks for the contact. As you will understand we are trying to keep up with lots of different angles on this.
I will have a look further and either I or another FBU official will get back soon
From: Terry Edge
Sent: 21 June 2017 15:23
To: Matt Wrack
Subject: Grenfell Tower and toxic smoke
I saw you on 'Panorama' and was touched by your description of firefighters breaking the rules to risk their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. I also read your letter to Theresa May about the inquiry, which I thought was excellent (e.g. a consultation is definitely needed).
I wanted to make contact with you regarding a key element of that (and other) fires, i.e. the horror of toxic fumes from burning flame retardant chemicals (that you did not actually mention in your letter to the PM).
So you know my background - I was the lead official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (now BEIS) on the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations. I worked on BIS's 2014 consultation which proposed a new match test that would have achieved two things: put right the fact the current test doesn't work and hugely reduced FRs in cover fabrics. Unfortunately, this proposal was blocked (mainly by the chemical industry). I lost my job in trying to get things put right. Curiously, perhaps, BEIS re-issued exactly the same proposal last September  but are now sitting on a response. Industry has expressed the view that nothing is likely to change with this consultation and I agree.
In short, this means that consumers will have to continue buying sofas that are ignitable when they shouldn't be and suffering from flame retardant chemicals either wearing off into house dust then getting into their blood, breast milk, etc, or from deadly hydrogen cyanide gas when a sofa catches light.
I've been working with a small group of people including a leading smoke toxicologist who is soon to publish his findings in a peer-reviewed journal. One of his main conclusions is that an EU sofa that has not been treated with FR chemicals is actually safer than a UK sofa containing flame retardants, mainly because any additional escape time gained via FRs (and there is evidence to dispute the FR industry's claims of 12-14 mins - more like seconds in fact) is negated by the very quick onset of hydrogen cyanide when a fire starts. We're also currently working with various journalists on getting this issue out there.
A key ingredient of the black smoke pouring out of the Grenfell Tower would be hydrogen cyanide.
Obviously, this has the potential to have serious effects on the health of firefighters. To quote a fire safe conference in 2015:
Deadly fumes also make the work of fire fighters highly dangerous. “Toxic smoke from these products is not only putting our health at risk — it’s also preventing us from saving the lives of others,” said Tommy Kjaer of the European Fire Fighters Union Alliance. “Europe’s politicians need to address this issue urgently.”
As I'm sure you're aware, US firefighters (who'd discovered they were getting far more cancers than normal) played a leading role in getting the California/US standard changed so that furniture there no longer needs to contain FRs.
We intend to keep pressing BEIS to make the changes that will hugely reduce the toxic effects of domestic furniture. We also believe this issue should be raised more publicly since it mirrors in many ways the problems with the Fire Safety Order and the standards-making process (e.g. strong business influence on safety measures not dealt with adequately by civil servants).
I would be very happy to discuss this with you further.