Government to examine ‘health concerns’ resulting from one of Britain’s worst water contamination incidents
Environment Minister Michael Meacher has announced that the health of those affected by the 1988 Lowermoor water contamination incident will be re-examined, but, to campaigners’ dismay, there will not be a full public inquiry.
The Lowermoor incident occurred at South West Water’s Lowermoor water treatment works at Camelford on Bodmin Moor, North Cornwall, in 1988 when a contractor’s relief driver put 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate in the wrong tank at the unmanned works, which subsequently contaminated water supplies to the surrounding area.
In both 1989 and 1991, the government appointed Lowermoor Incident Health Advisory Group (LIHAG) concluded that there was no convincing evidence that harmful accumulation of aluminium had occurred, nor that there was a greater prevalence of ill health due to the toxic effects of the contaminated water, but recognised that the incident and subsequent events had led to real suffering in the community. It also recommended further research and surveillance, and assessment by expert Committees as appropriate. At the time, the operational aspects arising from the incident were also addressed by the then South West Water Authority, a £10,000 fine paid and procedures immediately put in place by all water companies to prevent such an incident arising again.
Meacher said that following discussions with Health Minister Yvette Cooper, the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment has been asked to advise on whether the incident has resulted in delayed or persistent health effects, and on any need for additional monitoring and research. It is setting up a subgroup to be chaired by the Chairman of the Committee on Toxicity, Professor Frank Woods CBE, and will include a locally nominated representative from the Lowermoor area. As well as evaluating the results of monitoring and research undertaken since LIHAG’s 1991 report by March next year, the sub-group will meet with those who believe that their health has been adversely affected by the Lowermoor incident.
“When I attended a public meeting with residents in the Lowermoor area last year, many local people affected by the incident told me that their health concerns merited further examination,” Meacher said. “The sub group will look at those concerns, taking written evidence from anyone who believes they have relevant information. I have insisted that this will be a transparent, independent and inclusive process and interested parties will have an opportunity to comment on the subgroup’s draft report at an open meeting.”
The local MP, Liberal Democrat Paul Tyler, told edie that local people’s health fears were justified. “I have met with many local people whose health complaints ranged from mouth ulcers to memory loss, and in the worst case, the chemical being linked to Alzheimer’s Disease, ” he said, citing a 1999 study by Dr Paul Altmann, a consultant nephrologist from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. After examining 55 people who alleged the incident had caused symptoms such as short term memory loss and poor concentration, Altmann found that exposure to aluminium sulphate had caused ‘considerable damage’ to their brain functions.
“The worst part was not the accident however, but when GPs told victims their symptoms were all in the mind,” Tyler said. “The feeling of helplessness in the face of official denial is very strong.” The MP also said that he supported the Environment Minister’s rejection of calls for a full public inquiry, which a local group the Lowermoor Support Group, has been demanding.
“A public inquiry takes an awful long time on simple issues, something which this is not, and the necessary legal reprise would be a disservice to victims who have already waited 13 years,” he said. “Two positive developments are that the Committee’s draft report will come before a local meeting, which is highly unusual, and it has agreed to appoint a local representative, which I have been asked to select.”