'Building Regulations are not fit for purpose and have put lives at risk, as has been shown by the Grenfell tragedy'
says architect Tom Woolley.
In the 1990s I helped to publish the Green Building Handbook. In it we analysed the environmental impact of hazardous materials such as plastic foam insulations and PVC windows. We had a grant from the Government but this was taken away following lobbying from the plastics industry. Since then the production of petrochemical based insulation materials has grown massively on the basis that this will reduce CO2 emissions and make houses warmer. However, the risks to people in terms of health and fire dangers has been largely ignored until the horrendous disaster at Grenfell. The risks of over-cladding with synthetic insulation panels was apparent after the Lakanal House fire but the findings were muddled and ignored. Now we have a major dilemma, do we continue to use these hazardous materials because they are claimed to alleviate fuel poverty or do we stop their use because of the risks of fire and ill health?
As fuel bills rise and austerity strikes even deeper into the lives of ordinary people, surely anything that can make houses warmer should be welcomed. However, there are a number of major problems here. First of all, the plastic foam insulations do not work as well as claimed. The Zero Carbon hub was shut down by the Tory Government after pointing out there was a performance gap. The plastic foam insulations rely on the addition of toxic flame retardants but research at University of Central Lancashire and elsewhere shows that these materials still catch fire and release seriously dangerous chemicals which can kill people and damage the health of fire fighters. The German government is trying to ban the use of polystyrene foam, as when it goes to landfill it results in serious environmental contamination from the flame retardants and other chemicals. The chemicals used can give off gas and attack the thyroid gland resulting in serious developmental and health problems. Research has shown that 99,000 unnecessary deaths occur every year in Europe from bad indoor air quality, mainly caused by the hazardous materials that are used in modern buildings.
The manufacture of synthetic foam insulations has been supported by Government grants and loans and the insulation companies are increasing their profits (and prices) even though pollution controls in Europe are leading to the shortage of isocyanates and other hazardous chemicals they need to produce the stuff. There are excellent non-flammable environmentally friendly materials such as wood fibre, hemp, sheep wool, and recycled glass and cellulose products but these are hardly produced in the UK. A programme to support healthy zero carbon, bio-based materials set up under the Gordon Brown Government was one of the first things to be axed by David Cameron.
The Building Regulations are not fit for purpose and have put lives at risk, as has been shown by the Grenfell tragedy. The Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC) is packed with members from industry who are unlikely to question the use of the dangerous materials that may have contributed to the tower block fire. BRAC even includes Mark Allen from insulation manufacturer St Gobain who make Celotex. The general public remain largely in ignorance of the problems caused by the use of hazardous materials in buildings which are damaging their health on a daily basis. These materials are even promoted by the fuel poverty industry despite the risks to health and in fires. These are complex issues, some of which are explained in my book Building Materials, Health and Indoor Air Quality. We need to ensure that the tragedy of Grenfell is not swept under the carpet and lessons not ignored and repressed as happened after Lakanal. The usual experts from the industry will be wheeled out at the public enquiry but we need a much broader, independent and joined up look at all the issues and a massive change in building practice in all sectors.
Tom Woolley is an architect based in Northern Ireland. He has been a professor at several Universities and an internationally recognised expert on sustainable and healthy building.