Camelford chemical poisoning: water authority "gambled with 20,000 lives"


At the inquest into the death of Carole Cross, Coroner Michael Rose said that South West Water Authority was "gambling with as many as 20,000 lives" and had been responsible for the UK's worst mass water poisoning.

Mrs Cross was 59 in 1988 when 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate was mistakenly tipped by a relief driver into an incorrect tank at Lowermoor treatment works in Camelford, Cornwall.

The aluminium sulphate, whose function was to treat cloudy water, entered the town's mains drinking water supply and chemically poisoned it.

Mrs Cross's brain was found to contain very high levels of aluminium, a factor Mr Rose acknowledged had a "very real possibility" of contributing to her death. However, the West Somerset coroner could not conclusively say it was the cause.

Calling for more research into the effects of aluminium on public health, Mr Rose said people in Camelford had "no need to fear" any possibility of chemical poisoning.

"I have little doubt the overwhelming number of residents in July 1988 ingested little or no aluminium," Mr Rose said.

Recording a narrative verdict, the coroner observed that when Mrs Cross died in 2004, she had been exposed to "an excessive amount" of aluminium in the contaminated water.

Despite almost 1,000 complaints, the then South West Water Authority (SWWA) pledged that its water was safe, advising consumers to mask the taste by mixing it with orange juice.

Mr Rose criticised the water authority for its "unacceptable" 16-day delay in telling the public of the poisoning, and for keeping the local council's deputising environmental officer for health "in the dark" about sample aluminium levels.

"He had statutory duties to perform and at the very least he had been seriously misled," the coroner said.

When Mrs Cross died at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, she was suffering from a very rare form of dementia called cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA) - also known as congophilic angiopathy.

Her brain contained quantities of aluminium described as "beyond belief" by an expert witness, Prof Chris Exley of Keele University.

Prof Exley said even 24 years later, people who lived in Camelford when the chemical poisoning occurred should drink a litre of mineral water with a high silicon content every day to help flush aluminium from their bodies.

Concluding the inquest, Mr Rose expressed sympathy to Mrs Cross's widower, Dr Doug Cross, and his daughter over her "tragic" death.

Following the verdict South West Water, which took over after utility privatisation in 1989, said water treatment works had been "transformed" by rigorous regulation and investment.

In a statement, James King, head of drinking water services, said: "Site access and chemical deliveries are always strictly controlled.

"Continual monitoring and quality alarm systems now provide real-time information which can be acted upon within seconds to tackle any problem which might arise and if necessary shut down a works."

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