Since the Kyoto agreement in 1997 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, successive governments have created rules about how new and refurbished buildings must be insulated to reduce heat loss. In 2011 the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) turned to the insulation industry for help, inviting representatives onto a Green Deal committee to come up with ways to push more insulation into homes. We discovered that of the 10 firms and construction industry groups on that committee, four were members of BRUFMA. One of them was Celotex, the firm whose plastic insulation would be fitted to the outside of Grenfell Tower four years later.
The deaths of 71 people in Grenfell Tower was a defining tragedy in 21st century Britain. That so many people could lose their lives in one block of newly-renovated council flats shocked the entire country, shock that turned to anger when it became clear that the fire had spread up a thick layer of external plastic foam insulation covered in plastic-filled panels.
The disaster was also a wake-up call; a deadly warning that something has to be seriously wrong with fire safety regulation and enforcement in Britain. If so many people could die in Grenfell Tower, how can anyone be certain that their own home, school, hospital or workplace is safe?
Our investigation, conducted over the past four months, has attempted to answer that question, and it has exposed some disturbing issues.
Even before the first bodies had been removed from Grenfell Tower, senior figures in the fire safety sector began revealing a number of uncomfortable truths: they knew plastic insulation was storing up problems; they had suspected a disaster would happen; and many of them had been telling the Government for years that the building regulation and control system was not fit for purpose.
And some went further; claiming that elements of the plastics industry were not only helping to write the rules that require more insulation to be fitted to buildings, but were also trying to silence people who questioned whether plastic insulation was safe.
Time after time we were told the plastic insulation industry was highly litigious, that speaking out about its fire safety was impossible, and that while the story should be told, no-one would go on camera. Eventually we found a former government scientist who agreed to talk, on condition of anonymity, about the pressures he faced. He said threats to sue him had made him unwell.
“If you’ve got no [legal] insurance you lose your house,” he said. “It was a worrying time and they were quite famous for it – people knew this was the way they reacted.” He says he doesn’t think the work he did was influenced by the threats, but they had an effect: “I think perhaps more than anything else other people were silenced – by saying ‘Oh, you’d better not say anything about that, look what happened to him,'” he told us.
We have identified several other similar cases. Among them Rockwool, the main producer of the non-combustible mineral-based alternative to plastic insulation. Rockwool sent out videos in 2007 showing how their product doesn’t burn and how plastic insulation does. They were sued for trademark violation and malicious falsehood. Despite the falsehood claim being thrown out the legal action tied up Rockwool for years and cost them millions of pounds.
In 2013 an insurance firm set fire to plastic insulation panels to demonstrate that they burned more fiercely in real life than they did in official tests and posted the video on YouTube. It might explain, they suggested, why hundreds of millions of pounds of fire damage had been caused in a spate of factory fires. They were immediately threatened with legal action and had to remove all references that could have identified the manufacturer.
And the week after the Grenfell Tower fire, six European plastic industry lobby groups complained in a letter to the respected publishers of a peer-reviewed paper on the dangers of toxic smoke from burning plastic insulation written by chemistry and fire safety expert Professor Anna Stec at the University of Central Lancashire. “We request that the article is withdrawn,” it said. “The consequences […] are enormous and could well lead to significant consequential losses.” It ended: “We feel you should consider this very seriously.”
The Government’s 2012 Green Deal launch report ‘Opportunities for Industry’ contains 126 mentions of ‘cost’ and 119 of ‘saving’, but nothing about fire safety.
Prof Stec told us her employers are supportive but even vaguely-worded threats are stressful. “All the complaints, all the attacks are taken very seriously by my university,” she said. “It worries me at some point that if you’ve got complaints coming in on an annual basis the university will come out and say ‘how long do we have to handle that?'”
While legal threats were being made in private, the plastic insulation industry was openly advertising its role in writing the rules that govern the fitting of its products to millions of buildings across the country.
The main lobby group for the plastic insulation trade was, until November 2017, called the British Rigid Urethane Foam Manufacturers’ Association [BRUFMA]. Partly in response to Grenfell Tower – or what it refers to as “events of this year” – BRUFMA changed its name to the Insulation Manufacturers Association.
They advertise that they are “influencing UK and local government, specifying authorities, relevant approval and certification bodies,” and have “high level involvement in the drafting and regular revision of British and European standards [and] the Building Regulations.” Its members are promised the “opportunity to influence Government bodies and NGOs” and “direct input into relevant British Standards committees.”
How that influence works in practice is exposed by examination of government efforts to meet the UK’s climate change commitments. Since the Kyoto agreement in 1997 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, successive governments have created rules about how new and refurbished buildings must be insulated to reduce heat loss.
In 2011 the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) turned to the insulation industry for help, inviting representatives onto a Green Deal committee to come up with ways to push more insulation into homes. We discovered that of the 10 firms and construction industry groups on that committee, four were members of BRUFMA. One of them was Celotex, the firm whose plastic insulation would be fitted to the outside of Grenfell Tower four years later.
Celotex technical director Rob Warren was a leading committee member who made his intentions clear on a now-deleted company web page. Under the heading “Celotex enter government,” he said his position on the DECC committee meant he was “working inside government” to “shape this critical policy enabling the insulation industry to maximise the benefits.” Construction expert Simon Hay who was also on the committee told us he was aware of the agenda: “The point from the insulation companies was that they were going to sell a lot more insulation,” he said
A few years later Celotex revealed that the rules the plastics industry helps to write are key to company profits. Trade magazine Urethanes Technology International reported in 2015 that Warren had told them regulatory change was the “greatest driver” of plastic insulation sales. Without new regulations he was reported as saying: “You cannot give insulation away and the public are not really interested.”
Building control was opened up to competition, pitting private building inspectors against council officers in what one architect said was an ‘extremely stupid’ form of privatisation.
But while new guidance and legislation led to a doubling of the market value of the main plastic insulation products in the UK between 2012 and 2016, efforts to insulate buildings rarely considered fire safety. Simon Hay who sat alongside Celotex and the other insulation firms on the DECC committee says he doesn’t recall fire being mentioned in any of the meetings. The government’s 2012 Green Deal launch report “Opportunities for Industry” contains 126 mentions of “cost” and 119 of “saving”, but nothing about fire safety.
Several fire safety experts have told us it was Part L of the building regulations which deal with heat loss that had a significant impact on the fire safety of buildings of all sizes. Niall Rowan from the Passive Fire Protection Association told us: “Due to the green agenda we’ve had a push to insulate buildings and the easiest and cheapest way to insulate was using these combustible materials […] our eye was off the ball.”