Highgate estate residents complain of health issues after exposure to ‘toxic gases’

Report produced on behalf of Hillcrest Estate residents includes dossier of evidence of drainage problems they say Haringey Council has ignored, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Hillcrest Estate and some of the overflowing sewage photographed by residents
Hillcrest Estate and some of the overflowing sewage photographed by residents

Residents of a Highgate council estate have been left living in fear of “toxic gases” entering their homes from blocked and collapsing drains.

Several residents of Hillcrest Estate, off North Hill, have reported being affected by health problems including severe headaches, fatigue, and burning sensations in the nose and throat following exposure to “strong fumes” entering their flats.

They believe the symptoms are linked to exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are dangerous to human health and can cause cancer.

According to a report produced by the Highgate Society and local Liberal Democrat councillor Scott Emery on behalf of more than a dozen residents, evidence suggests that the “chemical contamination” is being caused by disintegrating and collapsed pipes resulting from Haringey Council’s failure to carry out routine inspections and maintenance.

In response the council has recently carried out an inspection and has said “work will get underway quickly on any necessary repairs”.

However, the Highgate Society’s report states the council was alerted to the problems in January but had since failed to take any substantive action. Residents also criticised the authority’s reference to an “unpleasant smell” as a failure to understand the severity of the problems they face.

Symptoms reported by residents quoted in the report include severe headaches, numb and tingling lips, burning sensations in the nose and throat, confusion and disorientation, strange tastes, breathing difficulties and heart palpitations.

The health complaints recently prompted a local GP to write to the council asking for the matter to be looked into “with some urgency”.

One resident, who did not want to be identified, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the experience was “worse than living in a horror film”.

The Highgate Society report states that devices in one flat “have regularly detected very high levels of VOCs”, which are present in sewer gas and can be odourless. It adds that these compounds “are in many cases carcinogenic and can be explosive”.

Four blocks on the estate – Mountbatten House, Dowdling House, Cunningham House, and Alexander House – are said to have experienced raw sewage bubbling up, pooling and flooding outside of the buildings.

Mountbatten House is currently understood to be the worst affected by the contamination issues, with raw sewage being left “to create a form of cesspit” near the block.

After the council failed to take action to address their concerns, residents of the block paid a private company to carry out drainage surveys. The report states that the findings give “strong indications” that there are problems with the piping between flats and manhole covers, which is the council’s responsibility.

These surveys are reported to have found that surface water drainage pipes are “significantly corroded and obstructed” with significant blockages, sludge build-up and “heavily corroded” cast-iron pipework.

Foul water drainage pipes were also found to be “significantly obstructed” and “likely to be broken in several places”, according to the report. In one flat, the state of the existing pipework was said to be “close to disintegrating”.

The report states that the pipework should be cleaned every three to six months, “but it is clear this has not happened”. Residents said records obtained from the council dating back to 2010 showed there was nothing to indicate routine maintenance had been carried out on the pipes.

The report says none of the harmed residents have been given any clear information or updates by the council, causing “significant psychological strain”. Residents have also been put under financial pressure, facing higher energy costs as they are forced to ventilate flats and run heaters.

Although managers and contractors have been sent to the site, they were said to be “not equipped with any history or detail, placing the burden on individual harmed residents, at each visit, to supply the background, and identify relevant building features and infrastructure issues”.

Potential hazards were allegedly dismissed on the basis of a ‘smell test’ which the report described as “a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sewer and other chemical contamination”.

The Highgate Society and Cllr Emery have called on the council to take “clear, holistic and purposeful action” to address the ongoing harms to residents, going beyond “treating this matter as an unconnected series of call-outs or repairs”.

The report states: “Only Haringey Council as freeholder can instruct the necessary professional trace and access investigations. Only Haringey Council as freeholder can take the relevant air and soil samples from basements, voids, and undercrofts and vacant flat(s) to which harmed residents do not have access.

“These steps could have been taken in January, when the council was made fully aware of these issues.”

Andrew Sulston, vice-chair of the Highgate Society, said: “The Highgate Society exists to make Highgate a better place to live and work. The contamination at Hillcrest shows Haringey neglecting its obligations towards residents and this has led to very adverse outcomes. We have therefore been pleased to help the group of residents that came to us. We have worked with them to approach Haringey Council and advocate for a solution to be found urgently.

“We really hope that the council responds promptly and seriously to the sewage contamination. The wellbeing of many residents is at stake, as well as the wider surrounding area.”

Sarah Williams, cabinet member for housing services, private renters and planning, said: “We fully understand and appreciate the concern this is causing residents at Mountbatten House and are working hard to get the issues sorted.

“Our investigations so far indicate the source of the unpleasant smell relates to the drainage system. Following a thorough review of the residents’ and external reports as well as our own survey, a site visit has taken place […] to ensure we are addressing all aspects of residents’ concerns.

“Work will get underway quickly on any necessary repairs to ensure the pipework and gullies are safe and clear to allow surface water to drain effectively. We will also look at options for installing appropriate environmental monitoring equipment.

“We will then undertake a comprehensive assessment using specialist CCTV equipment of all the drainage and sewage systems owned and managed by the council on the estate, liaising with Thames Water, who are responsible for the main drains.

“If this shows further practical action is needed, we will implement a longer-term programme of remedial work and ensure residents are fully informed every step of the way.”

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