Insulation blamed for London fire widely used in State

New fire-safety regulations to come into force in fortnight, says Department of Housing

White cladding on the right of the Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington, London, in the aftermath of a fire in which at least 17 people have died. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

White cladding on the right of the Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington, London, in the aftermath of a fire in which at least 17 people have died. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

Newly-appointed Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy spoke with senior officials about Irish fire safety standards, in the wake of the London fire tragedy.

Insulating materials of the type blamed for the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower residential block fire in London are widely available in Ireland and appear to be widely used.

Foam insulation similar to that used on the exterior of the tower is both manufactured in Ireland and used often by construction companies – though usually as an internal insulation, not as external cladding.

The Department of Housing said that long-planned new fire-safety regulations for dwelling houses are due to come into force in a fortnight.

A second chapter of reforms for buildings other than dwelling houses is under preparation, which would include the rules governing building cladding, said a spokesman.

Existing rules insist that all works should be carried out using “proper materials . . . which are fit for the use for which they are intended and for the conditions in which they are to be used”, said the department.

Third-party certification is needed for products such as modern cladding systems where “national standards do not yet exist”, to ensure that the products, nevertheless, comply with Irish building regulations.

Last year, the European Fire Fighter Unions Alliance lobbied the EU on the subject, producing a score of examples where insulating materials had played a role in accelerating fires.

About 500 million square meters of external facade insulation systems have been used to insulate buildings in Germany alone, the alliance said.

“In future we will have more insulation in our buildings, because of demands to save energy and CO2. A lot of that [plastic] insulation will be able to fuel fire spread, because it is made of oil.

Part of the refurbishment at the Kensington tower block involved cladding the exterior of the 24-storey tower with aluminium composite panels covering a polyethylene or plastic core.

The interior of such panels is highly flammable but the use of this plastic, oil-based insulation is held to be safe if it is covered by non-flammable casing or rendering.

However, extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation, polyurethane foam insulation and expanded polystyrene (EPS) – have been linked to disastrous fires in several locations since the late 1990s, according to firefighters.

Mineral wool, otherwise known as rockwool, should be used instead, argued the firefighters before their Brussels audience, since while it will burn slowly, it will not ignite.

Beijing fire

In September 2009, a fire in the CCTV Tower in Beijing killed a firefighter and caused €110 million worth of damage when it “spread rapidly” over sections covered by XPS insulation”, but not those covered in mineral wool.

In November 2010, in Shanghai, a fire in a building that was being renovated and externally clad in polyurethane foam left 58 people dead, while a 1996 fire at Düsseldorf Airport killed 17.

In April 2005, in Berlin, two people died in an apartment when 80mm-thick EPS cladding on the exterior of the building went on fire.

According to the firefighters’ alliance, this cladding had mesh and render and was mounted on 25mm thick chipboard. However, despite a 500mm fire barrier being added in 2004 to the second and fourth floors, the fire was so rapid and intense that its progress could not be stopped.

In Miskolc, in Hungary, in August 2009, three people died in a fire at nine-storey block of flats. “The facade of the block of flats was renovated in 2007 and covered by an insulation system, consisting of 70mm-thick flame-retarded combustible polystyrene insulation with only a thin render on top,” said the alliance.