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Thursday, September 23, 1999 Published at 18:09 GMT 19:09 UK


Poisoning disaster 'caused brain damage'

Poisons were released into Cornish water supplies at Camelford

Contaminated drinking water from a Cornish reservoir is probably to blame for permanently brain damaging some residents, says research.

The damage had previously been blamed on anxiety.

The research has led to renewed calls for a public inquiry into the incident at Camelford reservoir in July 1988.

The BBC's Jane O'Brien:"There are fresh calls for a public inquiry"
More than 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate were accidentally emptied into reservoir, tainting the water supply to 20,000 people.

Long-term damage

Although aluminium poisoning has been found to cause brain disease, bone disease and anaemia in both animals and humans, this is the first study into the long-term effects of the incident.

The study looked at 55 people who alleged that the accident had caused symptoms such as short term memory loss and poor concentration.

These were compared not only with their brothers and sisters of similar age, but with a sample of people from outside the area, and a method of calculating their IQ before the incident was used.

Researchers found clear evidence that something had happened to damage their cerebral function.

Dr Paul Altmann, a consultant nephrologist from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, said his study, published in the British Medical Journal, provided strong evidence that the Camelford incident was to blame.

He said: "One can never be 100% sure, and we were sceptical to begin with.

"But now we are pretty certain that something happened to these people, and because of their own description of events, it seems as though it was related to this incident."


Doreen Skudder, 71, was exposed to the water and now runs a victim support group from her new home in Dorset.

"I told you so - this is vindication," she said.

"It puts a rather bad face on those people who have not believed us and have said we were just cashing in on the whole thing."

She said she continued to suffer occasional memory problems and had difficulty getting about.

Growing problem

The latest findings run counter to a 1989 report from a government health advisory panel led by Professor Dame Barbara Clayton.

However, second government report in 1991 said there could be "unforeseen late consequences."

The BMJ study supported this view, saying 400 people were suffering symptoms which they believed had been caused by the incident two years after it happened.

Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat for North Cornwall said the findings offered fresh hope to those affected by a "dangeroud mistake".

"Dangerous ignorance was added to damaging injury by the official cover-up immediately after the incident," he said.

Privatisation issue

"Many households had no idea their supply was affected. Some even went on drinking contaminated water days afterwards.

"The situation was aggravated by the imminent privatisation of the water industry and the then government was only too anxious to avoid any form of public inquiry."

South West Water, which took over following privatisation said in a statement: "We will study the report, but it is for the medical authorities to decide the implications of the research.

"We are not medical experts - the incident was over 11 years ago when the water supply was managed by the previous authority."

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