Residents of a west London borough say they have suffered a range of frightening symptoms – including nausea, persistent coughing and dizzy spells – over the past two and a half years.
Southall, in Ealing, is also plagued by a foul odour – described as a “chemical” or “petrol” smell.
Locals blame the construction of Southall Waterside: a vast new housing development built by property group Berkeley on the former site of Southall Gasworks, which was closed in 1973.
Residents say their problems began in early 2017, when contractors began cleaning the soil to treat the toxic chemicals left behind by the gasworks. An open air “soil hospital” was set up on site and the by-products began to pile up behind people’s homes. The soil was found to contain a cocktail of toxins and carcinogens, such as benzene, asbestos and cyanide, but experts decided it was safer to continue cleaning it on site than to transport it elsewhere, along residential streets where many families live.
Although the soil treatment is now complete and the first residents have moved into parts of the new development, the smell and strange symptoms persist.
Amrik Mahi, 56, who lives half-a-mile from Waterside, said he has experienced chest pains and shortness of breath for eighteen months. “When I visited Corsica for seven nights, I was able to walk for miles with no problems. After two days back in Southall it felt like my chest was going to explode,” he told Novara Media. “I have to rest every 100 yards.”
Other residents believe there is a link between Waterside and more serious illness. Nina Bedi’s 79-year-old father and 51-year-old sister have both developed cancer since July last year, despite having no family history of the disease.
Both the Berkeley Group and Ealing Council deny any connection between Waterside and these health complaints.
However, when Mahi complained to the council, it replied claiming the “need for housing in the long-term would outweigh short-term health problems”.
Public Health England (PHE) produced an interim assessment of air quality around Waterside last year, which claimed the by-products of the soil remediation were “unlikely to pose a direct toxicological risk to the health of the nearby population”.
However, the report did note that BME people (Black and Minority Ethnic) could be disproportionately affected due to G6PD deficiency, most common in people from parts of Africa and Asia.
Some residents have also suggested that cultural and language barriers in the majority-BME seat are being exploited to prevent people from speaking up.
“If a white area had this petrol smell, it would’ve been sorted overnight,” said Mahi.
Local activists also point out that the PHE report was based on data provided by Atkins – a consultancy hired by the Berkeley Group – creating a potential conflict of interest.
PHE’s assessment was accepted by both the Environment Agency (EA) and Ealing Council, neither of which have sought an independent enquiry.
But Tim Webb, 62, an independent air quality specialist who has been involved with activists in Southall, explained that Atkins’s methodology only measured average pollution levels. It would not detect spikes caused by toxic chemicals being moved around by air currents. These can only be picked up by installing an active air monitoring site to take real-time measurements of pollution levels.
“A lot of companies don’t like this approach, both because it’s more expensive, and because it exposes pollution peaks during the day,” said Webb. “Developers don’t want to advertise these to investors and prospective buyers.”
Additionally, Atkins only monitored the air on the development site, not in the residential areas surrounding it.
Webb said that two existing active monitoring stations near Waterside were closed in January 2016, before construction commenced, with the council citing high costs. “A cynic would say the developers and council didn’t want to find evidence of big pollution spikes. Because then they’d have to do something about it.”
Although the authorities dispute the public health impact of Waterside, they don’t deny the smell. An Ealing Council spokesperson stated that “three reports have now been published, which have found that, while the smells are unpleasant, they are unlikely to pose a risk to the health of the nearby population”.
The only measure Berkeley needed to take to satisfy environmental law was employing machines that squirt out a “cotton fresh” deodourant. “It doesn’t fix the smell – or the toxins,” said Southall resident David Marsden, 52. “But the EA says the developer has done everything it reasonably can in the eyes of the law.”
Residents were also enraged to discover that a Berkeley site construction manager sits on the board of governors at Blair Peach Primary School, on the edge of the works.
Teachers and parents claim the air in the playground of Blair Peach smells of “creosote” and that pupils have been suffering from frequent headaches and asthma attacks.
Ealing Council initially rejected the planning application for Waterside in 2010. But this decision was overturned by the Mayor at the time, Boris Johnson.
Jo Sidhu, 53 – a Southall local, former councillor and barrister – slammed the current prime minister for giving “the green light to build on poisoned land, despite our warnings about the cancerous chemicals. Johnson showed callous disregard for the health of my neighbours.”
In recent years, the council has been supportive of the project. Sidhu criticised the “corrosive relationship” between Ealing Council and the Berkeley Group, which faced a corruption scandal last November over alleged bribery.
Marsden described his own experiences of this relationship: “I recently went along to an air quality scrutiny forum, where I saw [Berkeley Operations Director] Damian Leydon, chatting with our Council leader like they were good mates. They were probably discussing their next trip to the south of France.”
Private Eye revealed that £60,000 was paid to send Council Leader Julian Bell on a four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to a prestigious property developer’s festival in Cannes in March.
Marsden claims that only £5,000 of that was ever reported to the council.
Frustrated residents have set up the grassroots campaign group, Clean Air for Southall and Hayes (CASH), which is mounting a legal challenge against Berkeley.
Sidhu, who is heading up the case, described a “David and Goliath battle with Berkeley, in which those suffering on a daily basis have been effectively left to fend for themselves.”
Despite CASH’s criticism of the Labour-controlled council and local MP Virenda Sharma (who lost a no-confidence vote by members this year), the campaign is strongly supported by the Ealing Southall Constituency Labour Party.
Marsden, who is a member of CASH, Labour and Momentum, describes democracy in Southall as “broken.”
“The grassroots members have been incredibly helpful and active. But the Labour leadership here does not have Labour values. It’s a safe seat, so people simply join for power and influence,” he said. “They shouldn’t be in the party at all!”
CASH is currently running a crowd-funding campaign to cover the costs of its legal challenge.
Joe Attard is a freelance journalist based in West London and a member of the Ealing Central and Acton Constituency Labour Party.