LONDON — Britain on Monday confronted a rapidly growing fire-safety crisis after tests of the exterior cladding on dozens of public-housing towers revealed a 100 percent failure rate, raising fears that this month’s deadly inferno in London could be replicated elsewhere.
Out of 75 high-rise buildings tested since last week, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament late Monday afternoon, not one passed. That’s up from 60 failures out of 60 on Sunday — with hundreds more towers yet to be examined.
Javid said the government will immediately expand testing to include schools, hospitals and private residential buildings — suggesting that the scope of the problem could be far beyond what was suspected even days ago.
The revelations came less than two weeks after London’s 24-story Grenfell Tower was transformed overnight from a home for hundreds into a charred ruin — and a death trap for at least 79 people.
At the time, officials described it as a horrific anomaly — an “unprecedented” blaze, in the words of the city’s fire commissioner, the likes of which had not been seen in modern Britain.
But after the dozens of failed safety inspections and the hurried evacuation of thousands of public-housing residents, Grenfell is looking like something else entirely: a dire warning.
Critics say that far from being an isolated case, the blaze is symptomatic of a loose regulatory system that allowed as many as 600 towers to be encased in a material that helps spread flames, rather than stop them.
And the problems may not end with residential high-rises.
“This is massive. This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Arnold Tarling, a British surveyor and fire-safety expert. Cladding is not just on high-rise apartments “but on schools, leisure centers, hospitals, office blocks, hotels — you name it.”
He added: “My view is: Assume it doesn’t work.”
For the cash-strapped local councils that manage the public- housing buildings — and for the tens of thousands of residents who live in them — the dismal test results have brought an agonizing choice: evacuate without a plan for where people should go next, or allow them to stay and risk another fire.
“Everyone is absolutely terrified,” said Kathleen Hughes, who cares for her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, on the seventh floor of a north London high-rise that is wrapped in cladding similar to the kind used at Grenfell. “There are a lot of children on that top floor. We have one staircase.”
Her building has not been evacuated, and she said that despite her fears, she hopes it won’t be. “I’m 75, for God’s sake,” she said. “I don’t need all of this on top of what I got.”
For the British government, rapidly growing evidence of the scale of the problem has brought a different kind of question, but one that’s no less difficult: Why was a type of cladding that was long restricted on high-rises in the United States and continental Europe permitted to be used on towers in the United Kingdom?
The maker of the cladding tiles — the U.S.-based successor to metals giant Alcoa, which is now known as Arconic — said Monday that it is not allowing the product to be used on tall buildings worldwide.
“We believe this is the right decision because of the inconsistency of building codes across the world and issues that have arisen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy,” the firm said in a statement.
The cladding — known as Reynobond PE — has sheets of aluminum surrounding a flammable plastic core. It’s cheaper than a fire-resistant version, also sold by Arconic, that has metal in place of the plastic.
British investigators have said the Grenfell blaze began when a refrigerator in a fourth-floor apartment caught fire. The flames rapidly climbed the building’s exterior, using the cladding and insulation as fuel. The building was engulfed in fire within minutes, and it burned for days.
The British government said last week that as many as 600 high-rise buildings have the cladding and need to be tested. But only a fraction have been, prompting the government to blame local authorities for the delays.
“I am concerned about the speed at which samples are being submitted,” said Javid, the communities secretary. “I would urge all landlords to submit their samples immediately.”
Javid said that private landlords should also send in samples for the government to test, and that hospitals and schools will be examined. Until Monday, the tests were focused exclusively on public housing.
The revelation that potentially dangerous materials were so widely used has triggered recriminations, especially given that the dangers had been known.
As recently as May, the Association of British Insurers warned the government about the risks posed by flammable cladding, particularly the potential for it “to cause fire to spread upwards uncontrollably.”
Investigators have said they are considering manslaughter charges, although they have not said whom they would charge.
John McDonnell, a senior figure in the opposition Labour Party, has said Grenfell’s victims “were murdered by political decisions that were taken over recent decades.”
Karen Buck, another Labour lawmaker, called the failed fire-safety tests evidence that what started at Grenfell is “turning into a national emergency.”
“The tragedy of Grenfell Tower exposes the overstretched state of social housing, especially in London,” Buck, who used to represent the area where Grenfell is located, wrote in a piece for the Guardian newspaper.
The crunch in local housing budgets and space has not only left communities with potentially hazardous buildings. It also
has complicated decision-making over what to do with residents who live in them, and who may need to be housed elsewhere while the dangerous cladding is removed.
The north London council of Camden decided late Friday to remove 4,000 residents from four buildings that failed cladding and other fire-safety tests.
“The Grenfell fire changes everything — we need to do everything we can to keep residents safe,” Georgia Gould, Camden’s council leader, said in announcing the move.
But Camden — which is offering residents the equivalent of up to $250 a night to stay in hotels — has been the exception. In the vast majority of cases where buildings have failed their tests, residents are staying in place.
As soon as Charlie Lawrence saw news of the Grenfell fire, he had a feeling that his building was covered in the same plastic tiling. “I had a gut instinct,” he said.
His instinct was correct: The cladding on his building in the north London neighborhood of Islington failed the test.
But at least for now, he and his neighbors are staying put while scaffolding goes up to take the cladding down.
For Lawrence, an unemployed 20-year-old with a 19-month-old son, the predicament has inspired dark thoughts about what happened at Grenfell — particularly a baby who was thrown from a window in a last, desperate act by a mother who was engulfed in smoke.
“You don’t want to be thinking those kinds of things,” he said, “especially if it can be stopped before it even happened.”