Public Health advice: air quality and asbestos

Public Health advice

Public Health: statement on air quality and asbestos
Statement on air quality and asbestos
Public Health England (PHE) has been providing specialist advice on health following the Grenfell Tower fire one week ago. This includes health advice on air quality, smoke exposure, asbestos, and the clean-up process.

Dr Deborah Turbitt, health protection director for PHE in London, said:

“We have been assessing air quality over the past week in relation to the Grenfell Tower fire and this shows no detectable deterioration in air quality and our advice is that the wider risk to people’s health as a result of the fire, beyond those directly affected, is minimal.

“People who were close to the scene last week and exposed to smoke from the fire may have experienced irritation to their air passages, skin and eyes, and respiratory symptoms including coughing and wheezing, breathlessness, phlegm production and chest pain. People who have ongoing concerns about their symptoms should call NHS 111 for medical advice.

We know that bound asbestos, contained in building materials such as plaster or fibre board, was present in Grenfell Tower in ceilings and header panels inside airing cupboards. It is possible that very small amounts of asbestos fibres will have been dispersed within the smoke plume but would have formed only a small fraction of the smoke and particles released in the fire; all smoke is toxic and any asbestos would present a minimal additional risk to health.

“Asbestos related diseases are typically associated with a long term workplace exposure to high levels of airborne asbestos fibres.

“Safety officers working with teams currently on the site have tested the air within Grenfell Tower for dust and asbestos and have not detected any levels of concern. When work commences to clear the site there will be a system of engineering work that will prevent any asbestos being released from the site and a programme of regular environmental air monitoring conducted to ensure that both contractors and local residents are not put at any risk.”

See also:

General advice on asbestos

We are all exposed to small amounts of asbestos in the air. Asbestos related diseases are typically associated with a long term workplace exposure to high levels of airborne asbestos fibres. The health risk to the public from a single exposure to asbestos is likely to be low given the short duration of exposure, and typically low levels of free asbestos fibres that may have entered the wider environment. It is unlikely that a short one-off exposure will cause asbestos related diseases.

The Grenfell Tower is known to have contained some asbestos containing materials (panels within airing cupboards and in textured ceilings) and during the recent fire these materials will have been damaged. Asbestos fibres will only have formed a small fraction of the smoke and particles released in the fire. Debris that may have contained asbestos will generally have been deposited in close vicinity to the site and the asbestos fibres usually remain bound within the debris. This will be taken into account when arrangements are put in place to clear the site to ensure that workers and local people are not put at any risk.

People with gardens in the local area should continue to use their fruit and vegetables as normal ensuring that they are washed and peeled before cooking or eating.

Background on asbestos

  • Large scale fires involving asbestos containing materials (ACM) are a relatively common occurrence in the UK and can cause significant public concern.
  • There is no direct evidence of long-term health risks from fires involving ACM, although the literature in this area is limited.
  • The available evidence indicates that asbestos exposures of members of the public following fires involving ACM will be very small if appropriate clean-up operations are undertaken.
  • The additional fibre loading of the lungs is generally considered to be insignificant when compared to the total fibre burden from background environmental asbestos fibre exposure.
  • The main health effect from a one-off asbestos exposure or short term low level exposure may be anxiety about potential health effects.
  • A number of factors mitigate against significant exposures of members of the public following a fire involving ACM. These include:
    • not all the ACM present may be involved in the fire
    • fibres may be entrapped, in larger pieces of material etc
    • respirable fibres will be a fraction of the total released
    • some fibres may be ‘denatured’ at the temperatures involved
    • atmospheric dispersion will reduce concentrations
    • the duration of exposure will be short.

Frequently asked questions on air quality

Was air quality assessed as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire?Air quality was assessed following the Grenfell Tower fire and this shows no detectable deterioration in air quality. Public Health England has advised that the wider risk to people’s health as a result of the fire, beyond those directly affected, is minimal.

Could being close to the Grenfell Tower fire have made me unwell?People who were close to the scene and exposed to smoke from the fire may have experienced irritation to their air passages, skin and eyes, and respiratory symptoms including coughing and wheezing, breathlessness, phlegm production and chest pain. People who have ongoing concerns about their symptoms should call NHS 111 for medical advice.

The smell of burning plastic made me feel unwell; do you have any advice?The human nose is very sensitive to odours and often detects odorous chemicals at concentrations in air which pose no risk to health, however odours can be unpleasant and affect wellbeing. Many substances that are perceived as odorous are usually present at levels below which there is a direct toxicological effect. Odours can cause a nuisance to the population possibly leading to stress and anxiety. Some people may experience symptoms such as nausea, headaches or dizziness as a reaction to odours even when the substances that cause those smells are themselves not harmful to health.

Frequently asked questions on asbestos

Was there any asbestos in Grenfell Tower?We know that bound asbestos, contained in building materials such as plaster or fibre board (also known as “asbestos containing material” or “ACM”), was present in Grenfell Tower in textured ceilings and header panels inside airing cupboards.

Am I at risk from asbestos following the Grenfell Tower fire?All smoke is toxic and any asbestos burnt in the fire would present a minimal additional risk to health. It is possible that very small amounts of asbestos fibres will have been dispersed within the smoke plume from the fire but would have formed only a small fraction of the smoke and particles released in the fire. There is little evidence to suggest that asbestos was deposited in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower and any asbestos is likely to have remained within the building structure / inner cordon. Even if small amounts of asbestos containing materials were deposited off site, as the majority of asbestos fibres are held tightly within asbestos containing material, they are not released into the air and this minimises the health risk.

Is there any need to test for asbestos in the air now, for instance at nearby properties?Safety officers working with teams currently on site have tested the air within Grenfell Tower for dust and asbestos and have not detected any levels of concern. When work begins to clear the site there will be a system of engineering work that will prevent any asbestos being released from the site. A programme of regular environmental air monitoring will be conducted to ensure that both contractors and local residents are not put at any risk.

What is asbestos?Asbestos is a term for a group of naturally occurring minerals made of microscopic fibres. Before its dangers to health were known, asbestos was often used in buildings for insulation, flooring and roofing and sprayed on ceilings and walls. It is now banned in the UK. Buildings constructed before the year 2000 may still have asbestos in them. 

What happens to asbestos when it burns? Asbestos may be destroyed at very high temperatures such as those that would have happened during the fire.

What are the health risks associated with asbestos; can it cause cancer?Breathing in asbestos fibres can damage your lungs and result in diseases of the lungs many years later. To have any long term health effects from asbestos, a direct exposure by inhaling asbestos fibres would have needed to have taken place over a long period of time. There is evidence to show that breathing in large quantities of asbestos over a long period of time (such as in an occupational setting) mainly affects the lungs and in some cases it can cause a cancer of the lining of the lung called mesothelioma; it can also cause lung cancer.

If there is asbestos in the environment will I have any adverse health effects?Recent testing of the air within Grenfell Tower has not detected any levels of concern in terms of dust and asbestos. The presence of asbestos in the environment does not always lead to exposure as you must breathe in the fibres. Breathing in high concentrations of asbestos for a long period of time mainly affects the lungs, causing a disease called asbestosis where breathing becomes difficult and the heart enlarges. People breathing in lower concentrations for a long period of time may get pleural plaques, mesothelioma or lung cancer. This is not thought to be a risk in relation to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Does asbestos damage the unborn child?Several experimental studies have suggested that asbestos does not cause adverse pregnancy outcomes or birth defects.

What if I need to clean-up any dust or debris from my property?If you have waste material or debris from the fire at your property, please contact the Council on 020 7361 3001 to make arrangements for them to collect it. 

When I handled some debris which landed in my garden, I think I may have breathed in some dust. What should I do?If you have breathed in dust it is likely to be in a relatively small amount. This single short-term exposure should not significantly affect your health. Asbestos is present in small quantities in both urban and rural air in the UK and so we are all breathing in small amounts of asbestos fibres over our lifetimes. The amount you may have breathed in from this one fire is likely to be insignificant in comparison with our overall background exposure during the course of our lives.

How would exposure to asbestos differ in symptoms to 'normal' smoke inhalation?Asbestos exposure is unlikely as a result of this fire. Following an acute exposure asbestos is likely to cause signs of irritation (e.g. sore throat, coughing) so is unlikely to cause different symptoms to normal smoke inhalation.

During remediation works, what are the implications for local residents and the release of further potential asbestos?Work on the remediation of the site will take into account the protection of contractors carrying out the work and of the people in the vicinity. Appropriate mitigation measures such as screens will be installed and monitoring will be undertaken at the site perimeter during the remediation process to ensure there are no off-site impacts.

Will weather (rain or heavy wind) increase the public health risk from asbestos?Any asbestos that was present in Grenfell Tower is likely to have remained within the building structure / inner cordon. Because asbestos fibres are held tightly within asbestos containing material, they are not released into the air which minimises the health risk.

If small amounts of asbestos fibres were released into the interior of the building any rainfall would wash them downwards through normal drainage systems to the environment where it occurs naturally.

Wind would not have an impact on asbestos embedded in debris which remains within Grenfell Tower. This is in large pieces and will be removed by teams on the ground.