Hundreds of survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster could be at risk of asbestos poisoning and must be monitored by the NHS, the senior coroner examining the deaths caused by the fire has warned.
Dr Fiona Wilcox has written to Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, urging him to take action to prevent the death toll rising in a formal notice that cites the experience of firefighters and others affected with health problems years after the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Her Majesty’s senior coroner for inner west London told Stevens she was concerned that no structured health screening programme is in place for people including firefighters and other first responders who were exposed to risks of smoke and dust inhalation.
“Without an appropriate system of health screening, there is a risk that illness may arise unnoticed or present later in survivors, first responders and site workers, and thus reduce their life expectancy,” she warned.
The tower was built in 1974. The now-banned fire retardant was present in textured ceilings and in airing cupboards. If inhaled it can cause mesothelioma, a fatal lung disease that can take decades to develop. Seventy-two people died as a result of the fire on 14 June 2017 and most of them are believed to have died from inhaling poisonous smoke, Dr Wilcox said.
She told Stevens: “Real concern has been expressed to me by the bereaved in relation to the health of survivors, especially children, and I have been informed that no physical health screening programme has been put in place to monitor the health of survivors on an ongoing basis.”
Public Health England has previously said that tests of the air within Grenfell Tower for dust and asbestos did not detect any levels of concern, although they were carried out in the aftermath of the fire.
A fortnight after the fire, Deborah Turbitt, the health protection director for PHE in London, said: “Asbestos-related diseases are typically associated with a long-term workplace exposure to high levels of airborne asbestos fibres.”
Dr Wilcox also highlighted the risk of ongoing mental health problems caused by the trauma of the disaster, including to crime scene investigators who spent months tracing through the charred debris of the tower. She said that while extensive support for mental health issues has been offered by Central and North West London NHS Trust, funding remains in place only until March 2019.
“It may be that the provision of some care services, for physical or psychological damage may be provided by occupational health services outside the NHS, however a scale and risk assessment of need and care provision needs to be undertaken to minimise persons affected slipping through the net and being lost from appropriate supportive services,” she said.
She added: “Action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you have the power to take such action.”
The survivors’ group Grenfell United welcomed the coroner’s intervention.
“We are pleased the coroner has backed the calls from survivors and bereaved for the need for long-term health screenings,” a spokeswoman said. “The potential long-term impacts of the fire must be taken seriously. The NHS are just about to start some screenings. We need to make sure this is the start of the long-term healthcare for survivors now and for years to come.”
A NHS England spokesperson said: “NHS staff provided extraordinary care to the residents of Grenfell on the night of the fire and in the months afterwards, including extensive mental health care to help people manage the trauma of the disaster.
“We have received the coroner’s recommendations and will continue to work with the Grenfell community, other health organisations and the emergency services to make sure survivors, victims’ relatives and other residents continue to get the care they need.”