Right, so the Grenfell Tower disaster is still racking up victims almost six years on, it’s sad to say, but not in the way you might perhaps think. As you may well remember from the news reporting of the day, the blaze that started from a faulty domestic appliance quickly spread via the cladding that had been installed on the outside of the block, so as to make it more aesthetically pleasing to the wealthy occupants of other housing developments who looked at it, make their properties more saleable I daresay, situated as it was in wealthy North Kensington, though of course the residents of Grenfell and others like it showed that a wealthy area doesn’t mean everyone shares in it. 72 people died, the oldest was 84, the youngest just 6 months old. Much of the story since has been one of Tory failures to rehouse survivors in good time, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which has made various recommendations, still ongoing as it faced delays during the pandemic, but for the majority of us around the rest of the country the biggest issue, especially for those living in tower blocks themselves was whether that same cladding had been used on their buildings and indeed it has been, along with hospitals and schools. Hundreds of thousands of people to this day, are still living with it, as the Tories haven’t seen fit to get it torn off these buildings. We’ve learnt a lot about this horrible stuff, it’s flammability, the fact it failed fire regs but was used anyway, it failed building regs, the manufacturers of it misled the British Standards board to get it approved, warnings had been made about it before but had gone unheard, sales continued with the manufacturer Arconic claiming it wasn’t responsible for how its cladding was used, it just makes you sick still to think about it and the criminality side of the story still to be investigated as the Met Police sit on it until the Grenfell Inquiry finally completes.

But now there’s been a new development as it turns out the cladding was also carcinogenic, it can cause cancer when burned and the people worst affected by this, have been the very people who risked their lives to save others, the heroic firefighters who dealt with the blaze. Around a dozen firefighters are now known to have been diagnosed with rare stomach cancers or leukaemia, it could be more, but thanks to analysis done on the soil surrounding the tower block in the aftermath of the fire, along with debris and char samples taken from the remains of the cladding, it has been discovered that there are heightened levels of cancer causing chemicals within 200m of the site. Sadly some of these cancer cases are terminal, these are not old men either, we’re talking guys in their 40’s, my age and that’s terrifying. Along with cancers, others have suffered from strokes, kidney failure, heart disease and more. Some have ongoing lung issues, notably scarring of the lungs and left with what they’ve colloquially called Grenfell cough, where they even cough up blood. One individual had that so bad, that at their routine medical their lung function had gone down so much they were taken off active duty. Only now are the health ramifications being collected.

So how did they end up like this? They have PPE, they have breathing apparatus, when you see firefighters on the news, they look well protected, so how did this happen? First we know the blaze took some considerable time to bring under control, around 24 hours and we all remember the firefighters from news reports and photos of the scenes sitting in their protective gear, taking breaks when they could, covered head to toe in soot and carbon, some for up to 10 hours, exhausted, others were stuck in the tower in horrifically dangerous situations for extended periods of time and ran out of air, leaving them to breathe in the toxins. Others were having to wait in toxic atmosphere’s for instruction.

A 2019 study for the Fire Brigade Union conducted by the University of Central Lancashire has revealed that firefighters are twice as likely to develop cancer if they end up with soot in their nose and throat. If they remain in their contaminated gear for more than 4 hours they are also twice as likely to get diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. 4% of firefighters surveyed have had a cancer diagnosis and actually it’s worth pointing out that this research was not unique to Grenfell but to firefighters around the country, this is amongst the general population of firefighters in this country and yet when compared to the general population, in the age bracket 35 to 39 for example – young people – their chance of developing cancer was 323% higher.

Firefighters involved at Grenfell fear the government will ignore this, claiming no link between their illnesses and their job, but it seems pretty emphatic there is and that research was done nearly 4 years ago, this isn’t a recent discovery, but what has been done to improve the equipment and safe working practices for our firefighters since then? Nothing. It’s always the same isn’t it, claps for heroes, praise and adulation, but never anything meaningful to help them do their jobs as safely and with as reduced risks as possible. Firefighting is a dangerous job, its got to be up there with the most dangerous professions going, but surely decontamination, change of gear at regular intervals during prolonged callouts, better gear, or development thereof to always strive to improve it should be the least they expect, for the valuable service they do for us and the risks they take personally to do it? Along with more intensive and regular medical screening because until pats on the back can cure cancer, this is yet another area the Tories are failing both the firefighters themselves and the public in. As the fire brigade have pointed out in addition to all of this as well though – the victims of those fires are just as susceptible to developing something nasty as they are and need screening regularly too following such events. There’s a huge amount to do here and it’s a story that’s not gained much traction, but should and is one more reminder that the Tories are still dragging their feet with regards to getting that cladding removed wherever it is found. Solidarity to all firefighters and a big thank you for everything you do.