LONDON — Two products made by American manufacturers that played a major role in the deadly inferno in London had been assailed for their fire risks and faced tighter restrictions in the United States.
Such regulatory gaps expose how multinational corporations can take advantage of the vulnerabilities in government oversight.
The companies, Arconic and Whirlpool, are widely expected to be central players in litigation over the fire, which killed at least 79 people this month. The Metropolitan Police have also said they will consider manslaughter among other charges; in Britain, corporations can be charged with manslaughter.
On Monday, Arconic, the American company once known as Alcoa that sold combustible material used at Grenfell Tower, the London housing project that was the site of the fire, said it would no longer sell that kind of paneling for use in high-rises. The product, only slightly cheaper than fire-resistant alternatives, has a polyethylene core that is combustible.
The use of that material is banned in buildings above a certain height in the United States, and the company included a similar warning about height restrictions in its own brochure in other parts of Europe. Investigators have found 75 buildings across Britain that have similar cladding, and hundreds of apartments were evacuated on Friday amid fears they faced similar fire risks.
Whirlpool made the refrigerator that started the fire, which was sold under its Hotpoint brand. The back of the model in the London fire is made out of plastic, whereas refrigerators sold in the United States typically use metal.
The London Fire Brigade has long campaigned to ban such products, even posting videos of burning refrigerators on its website. The group posted a statement there in February that said it had been lobbying for five years for new appliances to have fully fire-resistant backing — to little avail.
“The inquiry itself will be massive, because there are all sorts of interested parties involved,” said Jill Paterson, a partner at Leigh Day, a law firm that has been involved in litigation in notable cases, including the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
“In terms of the first port of call, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what started the fire, and if it was something that was faulty, that’s where you would start,” she said. “But the cladding and all of the other issues are obviously major matters as well that need to be investigated and looked into.”
Arconic stock was down about 6 percent on Monday, a day after a lengthy examination of the fire and the company’s role appeared in The New York Times. The stock has fallen roughly 13 percent since the fire. Whirlpool’s connection has only recently become clear.
In a statement, Arconic said it would stop selling the cladding panels, known as Reynobond PE, for use in high-rises. “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 regarding code compliance of cladding systems in the context of buildings’ overall designs,” the company said in the statement. “We will continue to fully support the authorities as they investigate this tragedy.”
Whirlpool said in a statement, “We are working with the authorities to obtain access to the appliance so that we can assist with the ongoing investigations.”
Multinational corporations are often able to capitalize on regulatory differences among countries. While Europe is seen as having more stringent regulation of food and drugs, American rules on many consumer products have been influenced by litigation and insurers. European agrochemical companies have sold genetically modified crops in the United States that are banned in Europe, though America’s tougher regulations on auto emissions contributed to the scandal at Volkswagen.
On both sides of the Atlantic, governments are in a deregulatory mood. President Trump has promised to eliminate two regulations for every new one. In Britain, the decision to leave the European Union is often portrayed by Conservative Party leaders as a means to throw off the bloc’s rules.
But the London fire has highlighted some advantages of regulation. American standards could have reduced or even thwarted the spread of such a fire.
A recent academic study sponsored by the Institute for Refrigeration, a British nonprofit, found that Britain and the United States had roughly proportional amounts of refrigerator fires. But Britain has more deaths, even though it has about a fifth of the population of the United States.
“Whilst there are a number of other differences between the U.K. and U.S. fridges other than the metal backing, including how and where they are used, it is common sense when you see a fridge catch fire that a fire-retardant back would make an impact on fire safety,” said Graeme Maidment, a professor of air conditioning and refrigeration at London South Bank University who was one of the authors of the study.
“For these reasons, we think that it’s time to look at this again.”
Even if the fire was started by the refrigerator, many fire safety experts point to the cladding, which was installed during a refurbishment finished last year, as a crucial factor in the rapid spread of the fire. Cladding has been blamed for numerous fires over the years, including several in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
In London, experts have cited a number of other factors for the Grenfell tragedy, from the insulation under the paneling to the lack of fire alarms and sprinklers. The evacuation of Chalcots Estate on Friday was prompted by various failings, including missing fire doors, insulation used on gas pipes and plywood used above doors.
As the investigation continues, building residents, industry executives and fire safety experts have blamed British officials for failing to heed warnings — from inside and outside the country.
In February, the London Fire Brigade published side-by-side videos of refrigerators with plastic and metal backs to show how much more severely fired affected the plastic version.
“The doors and side panels of most fridges and freezers are usually covered in metal,” the brigade said in its statement then, “but many still use a flammable plastic backing, which offers very little protection against the foam inside catching alight if a fire starts.”
The brigade also said new proposals from a standard-setting body based in Switzerland — the International Electrotechnical Commission — would not solve the problem. Gabriela Ehrlich, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the group’s standards had been updated to improve the fire resistance of refrigerators, though the group does not dictate what kind of material is used.
Arconic and Whirlpool have said they met regulatory requirements.
“The back panel is made of a type of plastic — used in refrigerators throughout the industry,” Whirlpool said in its statement. “Our products meet all mandatory regulatory and safety standards.”
Arconic has said “regulations and codes vary by country and need to be determined by the local building code experts.”