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Landfill’s Toxic Legacy

Ten years on from the death of Zane Gbangbola, in circumstances that have still not been properly explained, the risk from contaminated waste dumps continues to grow

Kye Gbangbola, Zane’s father, with Baroness Natalie Bennett

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Seven-year-old Zane Gbangbola and his family lived in a semi-detached Victorian house in Chertsey, Surrey, between the River Thames and what appeared to be an attractive lake, just the other side of the field that their home backed onto. To all appearances, it was an idyllic spot in a desirable greenbelt location.

Zane’s parents, Kye and Nicole Gbangbola, were both successful young professionals and their only child was a bright, lively boy, popular at his school and in the church community to which Kye and Nicole belonged.

But in January and February 2014, the heaviest rainfall since Met Office records began – the first climatic event attributed to climate change by a UK prime minister – showed the grim downside of living so close to water for many thousands of people in southern England.

Homes were inundated from Cornwall to Kent, rail lines were washed away and, on 5 February, amid mounting criticism that the Government was failing to get to grips with the crisis, Prime Minister David Cameron held the first of a series of COBRA meetings.

Two days later, in the early hours of 8 February, the happy lives of Zane and his family were shattered forever.

Kye and Nicole’s home had never been inundated before, and it had a flood basement designed to protect from this risk. As the torrential rain continued in that first week of February, this was doing what it was meant to do – collecting floodwater that had overflowed from the nearby lake, which Kye and Nicole were pumping out with electric pumps. They had also hired a petrol-driven pump, but only used this for a short period in the morning of 7 February to set it up and test that it would work if needed as a back-up.

All members of the family had been feeling unwell in the previous few days, but believed this was due to seasonal infections.

That evening, Kye took Zane with him to a local residents’ meeting calling for councillors to do more to protect vulnerable residents from the impacts of flooding. Afterwards, they returned home and Zane enjoyed the treat of watching the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics on TV. 

After he had been put to bed, Kye used the bedroom next to his son’s to work on his computer. He and Nicole were taking it in turns to be on “floodwatch” during the night, to check that the electric pumps were working to protect their home.

At around 3.30am, Nicole checked on Zane and found he was not breathing. She tried desperately to resuscitate him while waiting for an ambulance but neither she nor the paramedics could revive him. Zane was pronounced dead in hospital a short time later.

A second ambulance crew found Kye unconscious and in cardiac arrest in the room where he had been working, less than two metres from Zane’s room. He regained consciousness in hospital but had lost all sensation and power in his legs. Kye was later told that he would never walk again.

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Hydrogen Cyanide

Exactly what caused Zane’s death and left his father in a wheelchair was, two-and-a-half years later, the subject of an inquest that many now believe failed to properly examine the strong evidence that points towards a deadly chemical culprit: hydrogen cyanide, conducted into the family’s home along with water from the nearby lake that had, unbeknown to them, previously been a landfill site for all manner of waste materials.

The coroner found that, “on the balance of probabilities”, Zane was killed by carbon monoxide from the petrol-driven pump, despite Kye and Nicole’s denials that this was used that night – and despite the fact that officers of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service’s specialist HAZMAT team, which arrived at the family’s home at 4:30am that morning, found that the pump was cold and showed no sign of recent use.

The HAZMAT team detected no unusual levels of carbon monoxide within the house, but its specialised equipment did detect hydrogen cyanide at potentially dangerous levels – not once but three times.

Several other anomalies throw doubt on the coroner’s conclusions.

The carbon monoxide found in Zane’s blood was well below levels that would normally be fatal or cause serious symptoms. The Environment Agency national incident recording system classified the 25,000ppm reading for hydrogen cyanide, as reported by the fire crew, as “very high“, and Kye and Nicole were advised not to return to the house for over a year, even to collect belongings. And in July 2014, a leading neurophysiologist ascribed Kye’s paralysing condition as being “due to hydrogen cyanide”.

Since 2014, Kye and Nicole have fought tirelessly for a full, independent panel inquiry into what happened that night. They have gathered an impressive body of evidence as well as support from unions including the Fire Brigades Union, the Communication Workers’ Union and UNISON, environmental scientists, local councillors, and many prominent politicians including Keir Starmer, Andy Burnham, David Lammy, Jess Phillips, Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas.

A petition by the ‘Truth About Zane’ campaign calling for an independent investigation has been signed by 118,000 people.

Earlier this month, an Early Day Motion signed by 32 MPs called for an independent panel inquiry with full powers to compel disclosure into Zane’s death. It noted that “the victims and bereaved in this case have been blamed, abused and scapegoated” and that there had been a “lack of proper investigation” with “masses of evidence undisclosed or ignored and a flawed judicial outcome”.

The MPs also drew attention to a particularly shocking aspect of the case: “Zane’s family were refused legal aid for his inquest, whilst legal support for public officials was paid from the public purse and the coroner received legal aid.” This denial of so-called ‘parity of arms’ meant that Zane’s parents have been faced with a steeply unlevel playing field in legal terms.


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‘Ticking Time Bombs’

During the past few years, evidence has emerged that strongly suggests the landfill site next to the family’s home, which had later been turned into that pretty lake, had previously been used to dispose of highly toxic material.

In 2020, a Ministry of Defence whistleblower told the BBC that chemical waste from an MoD research facility had been dumped in metal drums into gravel pits around Chertsey, including the one from which floodwater entered Kye and Nicole’s home.

This tallied with evidence uncovered in planning documents for an aviation fuel pipeline, which revealed that a borehole sunk into the gravel pit in 1972 (before it was flooded later that decade) had struck “a metal canister… which released a substance that effervesced with water in the borehole and gave rise to an ‘obnoxious smell’”.

What happened to Zane and his family in 2014 also highlights a growing danger faced by many others who live near old landfill sites.

In 2021, independent environmental analysts the ENDS Report found that there are around 21,000 such sites across England and Wales. Of these, 1,287 are categorised as containing waste that would be hazardous to human health if it escaped. Very few of these sites are known to have been properly lined to stop residues being released.

An earlier government study into the link between birth defects and proximity to landfill sites found that 80% of the British population lives with two kilometres of such a site (it also found that incidence of birth defects and low birth weight increased with proximity, though causation could not be established with certainty).

Mapping by the Ends Report shows that 9% of such potentially dangerous sites lie directly under housing and 4% under commercial areas containing shops and restaurants. A further 45% of such sites are under green spaces or parkland. Nearly 750 are within 500 metres of bodies of water and 1,364 are in zones at risk of tidal flooding.

Like Zane’s family, most people who live close to these sites have no idea that they are there or of the potential dangers they may pose. This is not surprising, as information about historic landfills is by no means easy to come by.

Although the Environment Agency keeps records, these are, by its own admission, “not detailed” and often it is simply not known what materials may have been buried within these sites. Nor, in many cases, is it clear who is responsible for making sure that they are safe.

Such landfills may contain anything from household waste to industrial sludge, asbestos, toxic mining waste, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (linked to a range of cancers) and polychlorinated biphenyls (linked to altered thyroid and reproductive function and increased risk of cardiovascular and liver disease, and to diabetes). Some sites are even thought to contain toxic materials from the UK’s historic chemical weapons programme.

Dr Paul Johnston, a specialist in environmental toxicity at Exeter University’s Greenpeace Research Laboratories, has described these landfills as “ticking time bombs”, noting that: “With the climate crisis set to bring more flooding and coastal erosion to the UK, some of these sites are at even higher risk of leaking their toxic contents. This is a difficult and costly problem to tackle, but we’re going to have to do it at some point, or there’ll be some nasty surprises in store.”

Earlier this month, it was revealed that research undertaken on “a number of different operational and closed landfills” for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency had found 17 of these to be leaking highly toxic substances containing banned and potentially carcinogenic “forever chemicals” – in some cases at levels 260 times higher than is deemed safe for drinking water.

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Zane’s Law

As the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill reached committee stage in the House of Lords last year, Green Party Baroness Natalie Bennett drew the attention of her fellow peers to plans to build homes on two former landfill sites known to have been used to dispose of highly toxic materials (in Coseley, near Dudley, and in the village of Somercotes in Derbyshire).

She sketched out the history of regulation of such sites, pointing out that “EU regulations on waste and pollution came in through the Environmental Protection Act 1990, tightening up controls. In particular, Section 143 provided an obligation for local authorities to investigate their area and draw up public registers of land that may be contaminated. Section 31 of that Act also gave local authorities powers to inspect and close landfills and clean them up if necessary”.

But, as the peer explained, these sections of the 1990 Act were never properly implemented, with the justification given for this being that it was about “the cost and desire not to place ‘new regulatory burdens’ on the private sector”. Later, the Cameron Government’s so-called “bonfire of red tape” had further reduced the right of authorities to use the law to enforce clean-up of these sites.

With this – and the horrific experience of Zane’s family – in mind, Baroness Bennett proposed an amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which would place a duty on local authorities to report on land contamination in their areas, and for the Secretary of State to publish a nationwide review of the incidence of such contamination, identifying the resources and any legal changes needed to bring all potentially hazardous sites in England to safe levels.

Baroness Bennett proposed that this amendment be known as Zane’s Law.

It did not succeed in making it into the Act as passed but, with climate change driving an increasingly severe risk of flooding around such historic landfill sites, the need for stronger regulation is becoming ever more urgent.

“Surely, a basic duty of the Government is to ensure the security of people in their own homes, which, quite frankly, they are unable to do now because they are not empowering, directing and resourcing local authorities to ensure that they know what is in their land,” Baroness Bennett told the House of Lords.

This week, Zane’s parents have launched a petition for a change in the law, with Lewes Council becoming the first in England to pass a motion calling for a Zane’s Law.

Green Lewes councillor Imogen Makepeace said: “We hope that in passing this motion of support for Zane’s Law, our council will be paving the way for more local authorities to take up the call. Many thousands of people live near such potentially dangerous former landfill sites and are entirely unaware of the risks that they pose.”

Any change in the law will come too late for Zane and his family. But it can’t come soon enough for many others who face the growing risk from landfill’s toxic legacy.

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