[1988] Camelford town water poisoning (Aluminium)   Alzheimer’s Racket  Aluminium

They said we were dotty or lying - why trust them now?
(Filed: 15/08/2001)

WHEN the people of Camelford woke up one July morning 13 years ago to find thousands of dead fish floating in their river they were told by the local water authority not to be alarmed.

A spokesman reassured the public that their water, while "slightly acidic", was safe to drink. He told them to mix it with orange juice if they didn't like the taste.

Within the next 18 months more than 400 residents reported a variety of symptoms, including chest pains, sore throats, skin rashes, arthritic pains, loss of memory and general exhaustion.

To this day, the residents of Camelford, a Cornish holiday town of 2,500 people, believe that this was the first in a series of official cover-ups that continued for more than a decade.

This might explain the scepticism with which they greeted Michael Meacher's announcement yesterday of a fresh inquiry into Britain's worst case of drinking-water contamination.

At the first inquiry in 1989, a year after the disaster in which 20 tons of aluminium sulphate leaked from the Lowermoor water treatment works, residents were again reassured that the water had been safe.

The scientific review, chaired by Professor Dame Barbara Clayton, concluded that the "real mental and physical suffering" suffered by the residents had resulted from the anxieties created by the incident.

Elizabeth Sigmund, one of the campaigners who met in Camelford Hall yesterday to give their reaction to the new inquiry, criticised the Clayton findings.

"Effectively they said we were either dotty or lying. For 13 years the authorities have said this whole thing is just in our minds. Why should we trust a report by another government figure? This should have been a public inquiry."

Medical research, including a report published in the British Medical Journal in 1999, has cast serious doubt on Clayton's findings, linking aluminium poisoning to memory loss, brain damage and Alzheimer's.

Judith Young, a victim of the Camelford disaster who was living five miles away in the village of Treveighan, said she had no doubt that what she had experienced was real.

"The water was acid enough to take the enamel of our bath and make holes in our central heating pipes. We never stopped drinking it because we were told it was OK.

"And when we found proof that things were happening to us no one would listen. How do we know this will be any different?"

Others, such as Carole Wyatt, 57, who now walks with a crutch because of the pain in her joints, have had to retire from their jobs on medical grounds.

Among those to whom no-one would listen was Doug Cross, a biologist, who has done environmental impact assessments for clients, including the World Bank.

He said: "I started to do some surveys of my own. The fish were dying, farmers were reporting deaths and higher mortality rates among calving animals.

"I even found ice-cream with 20 times the acceptable levels of aluminium. I have been trying to make my material available for more than 10 years, but no one was interested. It is only now they have started to take notice and that is too late."

But last year Mr Cross was asked to compile a report on the Lowermoor incident which was submitted to Mr Meacher and has been widely credited with pushing forward the new inquiry.

Paul Tyler, the residents' Liberal Democrat MP, was largely responsible for getting Mr Meacher to visit the town last year to re-open the case.

He said: "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. After 13 years of cover-up I understand the scepticism of these people. They have been lied to and let down.

"At last, someone in an official capacity appears to be taking them seriously. For 13 years no one has really tried to assess just how badly people were affected.

"People have lived with the uncertainty for years. Hopefully that uncertainty will now be brought to an end."