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By Genevieve Hack, BSc Development Economics 

Up to a dozen firefighters who dealt with the fire at Grenfell Tower have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The cancers diagnosed thus far mainly consist of digestive cancers and leukaemia. Survivors from the event have called for medical screenings, as they still remain susceptible to other illnesses including strokes, heart disease and kidney failure. 

The people of London and the rest of the UK were left horrified on 14 June 2017 as the 24-storey block of flats in North Kensington caught alight. The fire was believed to have originated from a faulty fridge freezer. More than 1,300 firefighters from the London Fire Brigade attended the scene, with the fire claiming 74 lives. 

 “the events which transpired in June 2017 reflect wider social inequalities that remain embedded in governmental institutions.”

The tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower is said to have exposed the neglect on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which a High Court judge found liable for the deaths of five people. The severity of the incident can be traced back to the aluminium cladding, which was chosen in order to reduce the cost of the renovation work, despite the fact that it lacked sufficient fire-retardant properties. This was brought to the attention of the Council in the form of numerous complaints from residents, yet the council still failed to act. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, expressed his anger towards the ‘years of neglect from the council and successive Governments,’ implying that the events which transpired in June 2017 reflect wider social inequalities that remain embedded in governmental institutions. The Mayor went on to detail the people and communities affected by the tragedy, ‘some of them are poor, some may come from deprived backgrounds, some of them may be Asylum seekers and Refugees’. Grenfell Tower was mostly occupied by social renting tenants. 

Five and a half years later, the stinging effects of the tragedy can still be felt. The overall physical impact on the firefighters and survivors of the fire is yet to be confirmed, as the long-term effects of exposure to smoke and chemicals may take years to present themselves. The fine particles that are found in smoke can lead to aggravated chronic heart and lung disease. Moreover, dust and oil deposits that were found 160 metres from the block of flats were analysed, and it was found that they contained particles that can lead to respiratory complications including asthma. Studies show that the presence of these toxic contaminants found in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower could pose ‘serious, long-term implications for the health of emergency responders, clean-up workers and local residents.’ Responders outside the tower days after the blaze were also reported to have not been wearing protective kits, which experts have argued could have exposed them to toxin levels which might have been far worse following the blaze. 

Presently, up to 12 firefighters have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The long-lasting effects of the Grenfell tragedy have not only been reflected in the physical toll on firefighters’ and survivors’ bodies, but have also manifested in the deterioration of mental health. Suicidal thoughts have been reported among Firefighters who attended the scene, as well as the psychological effect on bereaved families also affected by the fire. 

The events surrounding the fire in Grenfell Tower have sparked movements of a national scale in aid of those affected, ensuring that the right support is available and that this situation will never be repeated. Riccardo la Tore, a Fire Brigades Union national official spoke of the inaction on behalf of the Government and fire bosses ‘The Fire Brigades Union is commissioning further research to help us demand proper protection and support for our members who attended Grenfell, and for firefighters all over the UK.’ A community-led organisation called Justice 4 Grenfell has also been established to ‘obtain justice for the bereaved families, survivors, evacuated residents and the wider local community. A public inquiry is ongoing, and is set to conclude its findings in the Autumn of 2023. The Building Safety Act was passed in April 2022, outlining the safety requirements of landlords of higher-risk buildings. 

The long-lasting effects of Grenfell remain prominent five years later and serve as a stark reminder of the failures of the systems on which so many people depend. The affected communities are now striving for greater understanding and action on behalf of the government. 

Photo Credit: Creative Commons.

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