Contaminated water caused long-term brain damage in Camelford, say doctors study

A PUBLIC inquiry into the decade-old Camelford water poisoning scandal was demanded yesterday after scientists revealed the first evidence suggesting people who drank the contaminated water may have suffered brain damage.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Sacha Baron Cohen is definitely not involved in the Freddie Mercury biopic, Brian May has confirmed
film
News
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
News
news
News
Boyband star Brian Harvey is on benefits and on the verge of homelessness
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Training Coordinator - Financial Services

£32000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, inte...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Administrator

£8000 - £10800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Supply Chain Administrator is ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor