Other people living nearby have also suffered unexplained illness, from coughs and colds to eczema and asthma. Others have complained of chest pains, and unborn children have been aborted because of abnormalities. In one road of around 50 houses, 6 have oxygen delivered.
Poor health has been a feature of life in Kirkby since the estate was built in the 1950s and ‘60s. Deaths from lung cancer in Northwood are three times the national average and one in ten babies are born with low birthweight.2 Knowsley has the highest number of school children who qualify for free school meals in England, 47.8% compared with 5.6% in Windsor and Maidenhead.3
The clear link between poverty and poor health is recognised by academics and health professionals. Politicians, instead of removing the root cause - the way society is structured - attempt to alleviate poverty with “solutions” that just move the problem from one area to another.
People were moved to Kirkby during the mass slum clearance of Liverpool and the health problems associated with social deprivation were present from the beginning. Most people moved were under 30 years old and in 1961, out of a population of 53,000, 48% were under fifteen! 4 There was, and still is, high unemployment. Prices for food were high - because of the lack of shops - and there were no social amenities.
Kirkby Industrial Estate had been the site of a Royal Ordnance Factory in the Second World War. Then huge amounts of public funds, and a ready pool of labour attracted US multi-national companies - Kraft, Birdseye, Massey Ferguson, Otis Elevator, AC Delco - employing thousands on one of the biggest estates in Europe.
Nearly all of the big companies have gone, leaving an estate of mostly small firms, with poor safety records, which spew out a cocktail of chemicals, plus a few call centres, known as the new sweat shops.
It was in this environment of high unemployment that Knowsley Council invited Sonae with £5 million of public funds. Sonae advertise themselves as the world’s largest chipboard manufacturer with the world’s most modern factory at Kirkby, but it is reported to have been refused permission to build in other countries.
Health and Safety inside the plant is abysmal. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) files show a list of accidents, with an inspector reporting after one visit that: “the situation is serious, with continuing complaints about safety standards.” 5 In March 2000 a senior ex-employee of Sonae UK made claims that there was no first aid facility, a serious drugs problem and that ‘punishment’ beatings were carried out against consultants who disagreed with the company.
There were also warnings of the dangers of explosion and fire, and since this there have been a number on the site. The latest of these, in September 2001, took 70 firefighters and two aerial units over three hours to control the blaze following an explosion. It was by luck rather than good management that the Maintenance team working in the building had left the area some 30 minutes before. Sonae failed to report this major incident to the HSE or the Department of Public Health!
This lack of care of the company for its workers does not inspire confidence in those living near. As far as they are concerned Sonae’s wish to, as they put it, “fulfil a valued and respected role within the community,” 6 is just rhetoric. They feel that once again, they are being used as guinea pigs to satisfy the rush for profits of yet another multi-national located in Kirkby, who will leave once the money runs out.
Even before the plant went in to full production local people complained about the effects of the emissions on health. Simonswood Parish Council, a body that represents local farmers, collected stories of farmers being unable to work the fields when the wind was blowing in their direction, horses at a nearby stables being fitted with masks, and one 12 year old in Simonswood village suffering from headaches and severe bouts of vomiting.
Conditions experienced in Northwood confirmed this deterioration in health. A questionnaire circulated by Knowsley Against Toxic Sonae (KATS), the group set up to express the health concerns of local people, documents this deterioration.
Formaldehyde released in the steam from the factory has been identified as the main culprit. Formaldehyde has an unpleasant smell and causes streaming eyes, runny nose, sore throat and a worsening of respiratory conditions such as asthma. It also causes cancer. Along with the noxious smell a white dust was noticed, which lies on cars, streets and washing hung out to dry.
An early investigation into the plant by Dr Vyvyan Howard from Liverpool University found Dioxin in the ash at the factory.7 This is not surprising when the company burns wood likely to be contaminated, like old railway sleepers and pallets.
The Director of Public Health for Knowsley has gone on record as regretting that no Health Impact Assessment was done to assess the risks for people in the area before the factory was given permission to locate in Kirkby. But Knowsley Council insist that the plant meets all the safety standards. That safety standards are lower in this country than elsewhere is not their fault. But Knowsley Council use Sonae’s own monitoring figures to see if they meet the standards and give them ten days notice before collecting them!
At certain times, particularly at night, at weekends, and on public holidays, the effects are worse. They seem to coincide with the steam turning blue and also, strangely enough, in between the testing of toxic levels. Residents are convinced that as the company are in control of processes, they can cynically time releases for when there will be least local reaction. If they are not in control then why are they allowed to operate at all?
Liverpool Academy, where the cream of Liverpool FC are groomed for a life in the ‘Beautiful Game’ is next door to Sonae. LFC have refused to get involved in the controversy of the plant, preferring to remain impartial. One local observer says that the players only train on days when the plant is not producing its noxious fumes, implying that LFC have come to an accommodation with Sonae.
A working group which includes the local MP, councillors, residents and representatives from Sonae has been set up to investigate complaints. KATS is excluded from this because Sonae object to being called toxic. They threatened to sue the group for this and because the group circulated the results of their questionnaire. Meanwhile the toxic emissions continue. The health of people living in Kirkby seems to be of low priority. That there has been any movement at all to address this issue is down to the local residents. The fact that they have had to struggle to do this is an indictment of the local council. That Sonae UK is allowed to pollute is down to the system that sets health standards in line with what companies can afford rather than what is healthy.
1: From “Knowsley Against Toxic Sonae (KATS) Report of the Result of a Health Questionnaire Carried out in Northwood, Kirkby.”
2: Merseyside Pathways
3: Liverpool Echo 7 November 2001
4: Kirkby and Knowsley, “The Archive Photographs Series”, compiled by Michael Griffiths.
5: From “An Overview of the Hazards Associated with the Sonae UK Ltd Site.” July 2001, Prepared for the Merseyside Hazards and Environmental Centre.
6: Liverpool Echo 9 March 2001
7: Liverpool Echo 30 November 2000
This article first appeared in TVS magazine November 2001.
See also: ‘The Community Action Website’ http://www.lmu.livjm.ac.uk/inmylife/Channels/Community/146.htm