Contaminated water caused long-term brain damage in Camelford, say doctors study
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Friday 24 September 1999
They said: "Aluminium sulphate poisoning probably led to long-term cerebral impairment in some people in Camelford."
The finding could trigger a rash of new claims for compensation for one of Britain's worst episodes of pollution, in July 1988. Twenty tons of aluminium sulphate was accidentally tipped into a drinking- water reservoir at Camelford in Cornwall serving 20,000 people.
Aluminium is a poison, which can cause brain disease in animals, and humans who have undergone kidney dialysis and been exposed to aluminium in the dialysate solution used for dialysis.
Two years later, 400 people were still suffering symptoms including aches and pains, general malaise and problems with concentration and memory, which they said were linked with the contamination.
Two inquiries failed to prove the aluminium sulphate had caused actual ill effects, although it was accepted the incident and the publicity it triggered caused "mental and physical suffering" in the community. South West Water, which owned the reservoir, was fined pounds 10,000, but a claim for exemplary and aggravated damages was rejected.
The polluted water was discoloured and tasted foul but South West Water, which did not admit the error until 17 days later, said it was safe to drink even for infants, and orange squash should be added to mask the taste.
The second of the inquiries, in 1991 and chaired by Dame Barbara Clayton, concluded the occurrence of brain damage, birth abnormalities and other symptoms after the accident would be expected by chance in any community of that size. It attributed the loss of concentration and poor memory reported by many of those affected to anxiety triggered by the incident, but recommended long-term monitoring of the population.
Today in the British Medical Journal, a team of researchers led by Dr Paul Altmann, a kidney specialist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, reject the claim that anxiety was the cause of symptoms. Three years after the poisoning they studied 55 of those affected, and compared them with 15 of their siblings who had not drunk the water.
The team tested affected individuals and the controls to assess their cognitive and psychological function, and found abnormalities in those exposed to the poisoned water. Forty-two of the 55 performed significantly less well than expected on the basis of their IQ.
Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP for Cornwall North, which includes Camelford, said: "There are many people in the Lowermoor area [site of the reservoir] who are still highly aggrieved. We have been calling for a public inquiry and with such a forthright, definitive and expert report on the long-term health problems the Government must now hold one."
The scientists have been able to publish their findings only now because litigation has been completed. In 1994, 148 of 180 people who claimed compensation won amounts ranging from pounds 600 to pounds 11,000, with an average payment of pounds 2,000. Charles Pugh, a barrister who represented the victims until other commitments forced him to step aside shortly before they settled, said the BMJ study cast new light on the incident.
Other victims now pursuing the case would run into problems. Under the 1980 Limitation Act, litigation should be initiated within three years. Mr Pugh said: "The court does have a discretion to extend the limitation period where it is fair and just. Bearing in mind that South West Water was convicted of public nuisance, it would not appear that establishing liability was difficult. The whole issue would be in establishing causation, something the new evidence goes to the heart of."
South Korea ferry passengers who were told to stay put 'got trapped' aboard sinking ship
Are beards attractive? Ryan Gosling says yes, but science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge and find out who's right
Malaysia Airlines MH370 co-pilot's phone 'was on and made contact with network tower' 30 minutes after plane turned around
Andre Johnson: Wu-Tang Clan-discovered rapper severed his penis and jumped from LA building
Oscar Pistorius trial: Defence witness 'unqualified' to testify
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
US Navy christens huge $3 billion destroyer ship USS Zumwalt that appears as a fishing boat on enemy radar
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
Nigel Farage fatigue? Half of voters ‘immune’ to Ukip’s appeal
Nigel Farage on Have I Got News For You: Ukip leader ridiculed over expenses and party 'fruitcakes'
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
- 1 Poveglia: 'World's most haunted island' up for sale...is anyone brave enough to buy it?
- 2 Babies cry at night to stop mothers procreating, scientists claim
- 3 24 people applied for the 'world's toughest job', here are their interviews
- 4 Andre Johnson: Wu-Tang Clan-discovered rapper severed his penis and jumped from LA building
- 5 Mrs Doubtfire 2: Robin Williams set to star in sequel to 1993 comedy
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...
£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...