International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations "Chrysotile" Highlights Study into Causes of the Grenfell Tower Fire

International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations «Chrysotile» has drawn attention to the results of the research conducted by John A. Hoskins and published on 15 December 2018 in «Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology». The scientist wanted to understand the reasons behind the Grenfell Tower fire, which took place in a London tower block and killed 71 people, and aimed to find out how it could have been avoided.

The fire broke out on 14 June 2017, with the 24-storey residential tower block with 127 apartments rapidly engulfed in flames. Not only the flats were on fire – the whole outer part of the building was ablaze. This kind of fire is particularly intractable given those inside can become easily trapped. It took 15 minutes from the beginning of the accident until the fire reached the top stores via the building’s exterior. 250 firemen and 40 fire trucks were engaged 10 hours long in fighting the fire. As a result of this accident, Scotland Yard reported 71 people dead, over 100 casualties from burns and smoke and around 600 people lost their homes, all because of a dysfunctional refrigerator in one of the flats.

This can be attributed to a fatal contingency, but John A. Hoskins has a different opinion. The building was constructed in 1974, and one year before the disaster it had been «renovated». Initially, the siding of the building used three-layer panels made of chrysotile asbestos. In his article, the scientist claims that this material had been thoroughly tested and proved to be highly resistant to fire and damage. Siding sheets made of chrysotile do not burn, melt or produce noxious fumes when exposed to high temperatures. In the 1970s, they were commonly used in construction for multi-stores buildings across London.

However, in 1999 the British government banned the use of chrysotile asbestos in construction. The authorities claimed that chrysotile was unsafe. This decision led to mass campaign discrediting asbestos across Europe. Scientists, construction specialists and fire safety experts protested the ban, referring to multiple years of research and studies which had proven that the controlled use of chrysotile makes it a safe, reliable, affordable and high-quality material. Nevertheless, the ban was imposed, and a large scale «reconstruction» of buildings began. In 2015–2016, the Grenfell Tower specifically lost its chrysotile «armour» and received new siding sheets instead.

According to Hoskins, the outside fire and consequently the numerous casualties could have been avoided had the chrysotile siding been kept. The natural qualities of this mineral wouldn’t have let the fire spread and therefore it could have been extinguished in a timely manner. In his interview with the New York Times, a former head of the fire service in London, Ronnie King, who was a consultant to a parliamentary group advocating for strengthening the control of fire safety measures, said the following: «The construction industry seems to be stronger and more powerful than the opinions of those who fight for the safety of citizens. Our voices are not being heard.»

Accidents caused by violation of the fire safety standards during the construction and upkeep of buildings is commonplace. The investigation of the tragedy on 11 September 2001 proved that the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York happened in large part because of the thermal coating on metal constructions. The coating that was originally made of chrysotile asbestos had been substituted with a different material. «… we are not aware of how harmful the substitutes of chrysotile are and whether or not the workers responsible for their use will become their victims. What we know for a fact is that on the one hand the poor performance of the substitutes has led to the quick collapse of the towers and high number of casualties, and on the other hand the use of chrysotile as insulation material could have led to the death of two workers, but could have actually prevented the collapse of the towers,» wrote the experts in the article «The World Trade Centre Catastrophe: Was the Type of Spray Fire Proofing a Factor in the Collapse of the Twin Towers?», article from Indoor Built Environment 2001; 10 : 350–360).

Fire prevention measures cannot eliminate the possibility of a fire entirely. On the other hand, the thoughtful choice of construction materials can decrease the speed of fire, and firemen will be able to evacuate people and extinguish the flames. Here it is up to the regulatory authorities who must watch the work of construction brigades carefully – human life depends on their actions. In the meantime, scientists are trying to appeal to common sense, and Mr John A. Hoskins and his research are a part of that.

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