As an architect in Northern Ireland, the horrendous fire and deaths at Grenfell Tower in London, may seem a long way off but the implications of this disaster affect everyone in the UK – construction industry professionals and ordinary householders.
Grenfell is not an isolated incident involving some obscure cladding system on a high-rise block but raises much wider questions about what sort of materials we use in all our buildings, the hopelessly inadequate system of certifying and approving materials and inadequate building regulations.
The NI Housing Executive (NIHE) has produced a leaflet which states that “we want to reassure tenants that cladding systems which have been installed or are being installed are required to comply with the relevant fire safety regulations”.
This is hardly reassuring because it is exactly those fire safety regulations that have been shown to be inadequate as a result of Grenfell.
A number of professors, scientists and exerts have been warning of the dangers of the use of synthetic foam insulations for some years.
These warnings have been ignored by the authorities, who prefer to go along with the big multi-national companies who have tried to convince us that using their products will ensure greater energy efficiency.
In fact, synthetic insulation materials made from petrochemicals are nothing like as effective as is claimed, they use a lot of energy to manufacture and cause serious pollution.
Foam insulations, such as those that burned at Grenfell, rely on highly toxic flame retardants, which are largely ineffective and when burning, release deadly hydrogen cyanide. These chemicals are used in mattresses, furniture, curtains and some carpets, as well as insulations, sealants, glues etc.
Increasingly buildings are wrapped in plastic, made more air tight and so the chemicals are released into our rooms and houses and get absorbed by the thyroid gland and our respiratory system, leading to a huge increase in health problems.
Many of the chemicals used in modern buildings can also cause cancer and account in part for the huge increase in the incidence of cancer.
The Grenfell fire has brought all these issues into focus and has shown how these hazardous materials are highly dangerous in fires.
The inadequate classification system for fire risks talks of limited combustibility materials, but in fact materials either burn or they don’t.
The ideal outcome of the Grenfell fire would be for all these flammable toxic foams to be banned or severely restricted but the manufacturers are already fighting to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
The committee set up to investigate the fire is chaired by Sir Ken Knight who was director of a company that certified many synthetic chemical products [Sir Ken has said his former role was unpaid and did not approve specific products so does not impact on his work].
The government has appointed Dame Judith Hackitt to investigate the building regulations but she is a chemical industry insider who was a Director of the Energy Saving Trust which endorses synthetic foam insulations [Dame Judith is reported to have said she had no role in approving products and that her intention to resign from the trust in 2017 has been moved forward due to her appointment]
Nothing has been done to appoint genuinely independent experts.
Northern Ireland has over 30 residential tower blocks and the NIHE has suspended cladding work on some of them. Belfast city council has a list of tower blocks but unlike local authorities in England, has not carried out an investigation so far.
The NIHE has set up a committee chaired by Professor Alistair Adair of Ulster University to look into the issues.
Some cladding system that the NIHE has used here are quite different from that at Grenfell, so may be safer. However, we do not know if they been properly tested or passed by desk top studies.
There are some buildings here that have used similar cladding systems to Grenfell but no-one seems to be compiling a central data-base of these, so we don’t know how many there are.
PIR (one of the insulations that burned at Grenfell) is widely used when renovating buildings, in new build schools, health care buildings and modern low rise house construction.
In fires this material, made with isocyanates (derived from mustard gas) and fire retardants, can kill within minutes, long before the fire brigade arrives.
Firefighters themselves are at high risk from the toxic chemicals. Shortly after Grenfell I sent a freedom of information request to the Dept. for Finance and Personnel responsible for the building regulations with a series of questions.
They are meant to reply within 20 days, but two months later I am still waiting as the letter is being blocked by the cabinet office. The lack of transparency from government is disturbing.
I have been to visit Grenfell and met some of the survivors and local people. You can watch an interview with me at Grenfell on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utHyWZUosAg.
My book Building Materials Health and Indoor Air Quality (published by Routledge earlier this year) warned of the dangers of using hazardous chemical materials in buildings.
We need the public and politicians to be asking questions about whether they are safe in buildings that use these products.
• Dr Tom Woolley is an independent expert on construction materials and environmental design and author of six books. He was Professor of Architecture at Queens University Belfast from 1991 to 2007 and has taught at many other universities around the world