On June 14th 2017, the worst residential UK fire since WWII broke out at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington. In the initial fire and the days immediately following, 72 people tragically lost their lives and 70 others were injured.
More than a year on, fears are circulating about the long-term impact that the disaster may have on the health of survivors, emergency workers and the local community.
Widely reported in the news is speculation about the long-term impact that asbestos, which was found in areas of the tower, could have on people in the future. In this article, we discuss this issue in detail. For those present at the disaster, we also try to provide some reassurance.
Why is asbestos in the tower a concern?
Grenfell Tower was built in 1974. In the 1970s asbestos was used widely in manufacturing and construction because of its resistance to heat, electricity and sound. The fireproofing material was used in the tower in the textured ceilings and the airing cupboards for heat insulation purposes.
Asbestos becomes dangerous when it becomes airborne in the form of dust. When Grenfell tower was destroyed a significant amount of asbestos dust would have been released into the atmosphere. When inhaled, asbestos becomes lodged in the lungs and can cause damage over time. Similarly, if asbestos is ingested it can become lodged in other areas of the body. This can lead to a number of diseases, including:
- Pleural thickening;
- Pleural plaques;
- Mesothelioma (asbestos cancer);
- Asbestos Related Lung Cancer;
- Pleural Effusions (build-up of fluid in the pleural cavity).
You can read more about each disease by clicking the links above.
The risk of developing an asbestos disease is low
However, it is important to stress that the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease after being exposed to asbestos once is fairly low. For example, only around 2,500 people develop mesothelioma every year in the UK. This is less than 1% of all diagnosed cancer cases. Furthermore, in order to develop asbestosis (asbestos related fibrosis) you will have had to have been exposed to very high levels of asbestos dust over a long period of time.
How long could it take to develop an asbestos disease?
Most asbestos diseases have a long latency period. ‘Latency period’ refers to the time between being exposed or infected with a substance and the appearance of the symptoms of a disease. For example, the latency period for mesothelioma is between 10 and 50 years on average. As a result, people exposed to asbestos at Grenfell may not develop asbestos-related diseases until as late as the 2060s.
What has been done to mitigate the risk of Grenfell survivors developing an asbestos-related disease?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to remove asbestos from your body once you have inhaled or ingested it. However, detecting an asbestos-related disease early can significantly improve your outlook.
As such, in late September 2018, Dr Fiona Wilcox wrote to Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, urging him to provide a screening process for those affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster. Citing the experience of firefighters and police officers who were part of the response to the 9/11 attacks in New York, she highlighted the health problems associated with high levels of smoke and dust inhalation.
Asbestos products were used in the construction of the World Trade Centre and the National Resources Defence Council estimate that between 300 and 400 tonnes of the mineral were used. Around 10,000 first-responders and survivors from 9/11 have been diagnosed with cancer since 2001. Although this is not from asbestos exposure alone, other toxic substances were found in the debris, including mercury, benzene and cellulose.
In early October, NHS England announced that they will be providing up to £50 million to fund long-term screening and treatment for those affected by Grenfell. Their statement said that they, “will ensure that those who have physical healthcare concerns, such as respiratory illnesses resulting from smoke inhalation, get the timely reviews and any subsequent treatment they need.” They state that the funds will extend to survivors, bereaved family and friends and the local community and that they will establish, “a new fast-track community health service for respiratory screening for adults and children, that will be developed with the people from Grenfell tower and the local community.”
Amongst other services, this new community centre will provide full physical health checks and additional monitoring for long-term conditions.
This is good news for anyone involved in the disaster who is concerned about asbestos exposure. If you are concerned, you should make sure that your doctor notes this in your medical records so that you can be monitored in the future.
How can we help?
If you require assistance in pursuing an asbestos compensation claim for an asbestos disease then please contact us today. You can call us on our freephone number 0800 038 6767. Alternatively, head over to the ‘Contact Us’ page.