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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January, 2005, 00:45 GMT
Bitter legacy of water poisoning
by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Richard Gibbons
Richard Gibbons: Blames ill-health on poisoning
Nearly 17 years ago, in the small north Cornwall town of Camelford, poisoned water poured out of the taps.

A tanker driver had poured toxic aluminium sulphate into the wrong tank at a water treatment works at Bodmin.

The mistake left thousands of people suffering diarrhoea, vomiting and other signs of poisoning after the chemical stripped lead and copper from pipes.

An independent inquiry was published on Wednesday to report on the long-term health effects of the incident.

Up to 20,000 people's water supplies were contaminated by the aluminium sulphate, which had entered the system at the Lowermoor treatment works.

This included Tintagel villager Richard Gibbons who had just made a cup of coffee on that warm July day in 1988.

Court payout

Four days later the healthy 55-year-old collapsed and started suffering mysterious skin problems.

A blood test revealed aluminium poisoning, which Mr Gibbons is now convinced was caused by the contamination.

Since then he has suffered osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, which he also blames on the poisoning.

Father-of-three Mr Gibbons, of Tintagel, told BBC News: "I've waited 16 years for this report.

"It's taken so long, I feel like they poisoned the water and left us to die."

In Camelford, babies suffered blistered skin after being bathed and people noticed a grey-green slime at the bottom of their bathtubs.

Lowermoor treatment works, Camelford
Water supplies to 20,000 households in the Camelford area were affected
In 1991, the then South West Water Authority was convicted at Exeter Crown Court of supplying water likely to endanger public health and fined 10,000, with 25,000 costs.

Three years later 148 people won an out-of-court settlement totalling 400,000.

But many residents later complained of long-lasting problems such as memory loss and mouth, stomach and skin disorders.

Two inquiries had been held into the disaster, but in 2001 the then environment minister Michael Meacher ordered an independent inquiry into the health effects of the poisoning.

The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, chaired by Professor Frank Woods, has taken evidence from Mr Gibbons and scores of local people as well as experts.

'Evidence missed'

But members of the 12-strong committee say the sheer amount of time since the poisoning has dogged the inquiry.

They say in some cases, which were investigated, there was insufficient information to reach a firm conclusion and suggest more investigations and monitoring are needed.

They also say there were some cases in which there were unexplained symptoms with no link to the available evidence.

Inquiry member Doug Cross said: "There has been a great deal of difficulty in gathering information.

"This incident occurred 16 years and a great deal of evidence has been missed."

Nigel Mazlyn Jones, of the Lowermoor Support Group, said the delay has left campaigners bitter.

"It casts a shadow over the people who are paid to serve us," he said.

"We are not the only ones in Britain who have had to fight for an inordinately long time to get justice."

There is now to be a three month consultation period to allow local people to have their say.

Water poisoning questions remain
26 Jan 05 |  Cornwall
Water poison effects 'unlikely'
25 Jan 05 |  Cornwall
Water poisoning report prepared
14 Jan 05 |  Cornwall
Final visit for inquiry team
27 Oct 03 |  Cornwall
Poisoning victims give evidence
27 Aug 03 |  Cornwall
Poison panel calls for evidence
15 Apr 03 |  Cornwall

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