By Sam Holder, ITV News London reporter
An ITV News London investigation has found that residents living in part of east London could be breathing in potentially toxic fumes caused by fires at an illegal rubbish dump. The initial findings also show what appears to be far higher rates of lung disease in the area.
Launders Lane in Rainham was used as an illegal dump for two decades and it’s thought that the waste, which stretches across the 35 acre field, and is as tall as three houses stacked on top of each other, has been on fire for the past ten years.
Christine has lung cancer and was diagnosed a year after moving in with her son David who lives close to the site.
There is no evidence the two are linked, but the smoke is so bad her consultant has told her to wear a mask even when indoors.
"It's the invisible enemy, you don't know what is attacking you," Christine Read told ITV News.
"I'm 74 and have a few yeas left but my grandson is only six and he is breathing it in and everybody in Rainham.
"They have nosebleeds, sore throats, difficulty breathing," she explained.
Her son David Read added: "My son goes to school around the corner and what can I do? Unless put him in a mask all the time I'm scared what he is breathing in. I don't know what his future is going to hold and what sort of complication this will impose on him in future.
"It is a horrible feeling, I feel trapped and can't do anything about it, we just need some help from someone."
The site is too unsafe for London Fire Brigade to properly inspect but when ITV News sent a drone over the field - which can’t be accessed by the public - multiple columns of smoke could be seen emerging from the grass-covered waste. Large sections of the site were fully engulfed by flames throughout last summer, with firefighters being called 100 times in the space of a few months to control the fire.
Crews have to adopt a ‘defensive’ position and spray water from a distance to avoid going onto the mounds of smouldering waste, due to the risk of firefighters falling down 60ft chasms.
Residents have long complained about the foul-tasting smoke coming from Launder’s Lane, which they claim causes nosebleeds, sore throats, chest tightness and itchy eyes. Monitoring of the site by a team of environmental scientists from University College London over the course of 9 days showed that levels of one potentially toxic type of pollution were 70% higher in surrounding streets compared to the rest of Rainham. Measurements of PM2.5, a term referring to tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 microns across, were three times higher than recommended limits by the World Health Organisation.
Studies have suggested this type of pollution can cause cancer, lung and heart disease, as well as strokes. "These compounds get deep into our brain across the blood-brain barrier. They affect all our organs", says Dr Elizabeth Cooper from UCL.
“If these levels are truly staying this high or higher then I think it’s an unacceptable risk in the community," she added. The UCL team analysed medical data and found that rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of serious lung conditions including emphysema, appear to be potentially 50% higher in Rainham than the rest of London. "I think it’s going to take a lot of years off my life”, says Ann Mills who’s lived in the area for 50 years and has COPD.
"I’m wheezing more at night, I’m taking extra inhalers and when it’s really bad we can’t keep the windows open," he added. The only way she was able to escape the fumes during the summer was by literally hiding under her bedsheets. Nobody knows exactly what waste is on fire at Launder’s Lane but the former owner, who was jailed for gun and drug offences, used a number of underground containers to store weapons and illegal substances. Experts believe it will cost more than £10m to safely remove the rubbish from the site but it is not clear who should foot the bill, which has resulted in little action being taken.
The London Borough of Havering have put up monitoring equipment to try to gather more data but believe they are not responsible for solving the issue, even if it can be proved without doubt that residents are being poisoned.
"The council just hasn’t got that kind of money and in any event, it’s a bit of private land so it wouldn’t necessarily be right for the council to be spending taxpayer money", says Ray Morgon, the council leader. "I think it’s probably going to finish up being the government who may have to find money to completely remediate the site and get rid of the problem". The Environment Agency are aware of the fire but believe that the responsibility lies with the London Borough of Havering. Normally in cases of environmental damage, the person who causes the pollution is responsible for paying for the solution. Neither the original landowner nor the current landowners, who bought the site in 2017, are realistically able to pay the huge sum necessary. "It is absolutely appalling that this is going on”, says Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter Ella was the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death following a fatal asthma attack in 2013. "Unless we clean up the air, more people like my daughter are going to die," she added.
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