Handling of the Camelford incident by the Department of Health
7 April 2005
I am writing to support the letter published in the BMJ written by Dr Chris Exley and signed by 58 international aluminium specialists.
Professor Woods is the chairman of the Lowermoor Sub-group, a subgroup of COT, which is itself an Advisory Body of the Department of Health (DoH). I would like to draw attention to some of the actions of the DoH in relation to the Lowermoor incident.
In late July 1988 I made contact with a senior toxicologist at the DoH, Dr G K Matthew. We spoke many times: he told me that he had attended committee meetings about the Lowermoor acid water incident and had urged the department to send an expert team to North Cornwall to gather samples of the water and other relevant data, and to make clinical assessments of the health of the people. His words to me were: “I am constantly being overruled”. He asked me to write a critique of the actions of the DoH in relation to this incident. His words were: “State what we did that we should not have done, what we have not done that we should have done, and name names.”
I was also at that time in contact with Dr Virginia Murray of the Poisons Unit at Guys Hospital London. She told me that they had a team ready to go down to North Cornwall but that the DoH told her that there was no need as the DoH was carrying out an investigation itself. As we now know, neither the DoH nor the Poisons unit carried out any investigation of the event.
On the 24 August 1988 Dr C R Grainger, Specialist in Community Medicine for the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Health Authority, received a letter from Michael Waring, Senior Medical Officer at the DoH. In this letter Mr Waring said: “I have not of course undertaken clinical or laboratory examination of any of those who may have suffered ill effects, and have not been in a position to verify any of the clinical reports or water quality data independently. You will wish to show this letter and the attached document to interested parties locally.” Under the heading ‘Long-term effects’ he said: “There is no reason to expect long-term or delayed harm following on the evident effect of these substances on the gastrointestinal tract. Long-term effects on other organs would not be expected for several reasons as follows: a) the amount of the substances absorbed and retained at the time of the incident would have been very small; b) the period of exposure was relatively short; c) no long-term effects are reported in the scientific literature for most of these substances.”
We know that Dr Grainger circulated this letter and attachment to medical practitioners at all levels in the West Country, so it therefore had a profound effect on the understanding of the possible effects of this incident and therefore the treatment of patients.
In the autumn of 1988 I spoke to Christopher Beazley, then MEP for Plymouth and Cornwall. He told me that he had discovered that the then Department of the Environment (DoE) had never informed the European Commission (EC) of this major contamination of drinking water, which, under EC directive 80/778 Article 10, they are obliged to do. When I spoke to Paul Douglas at the DoE he said: “We didn’t notify the EC because Mr Waring at the DoH told us that aluminium is non-toxic.”
We now note with concern that Professor Woods and his committee appear to be repeating these findings. In para 1.22 (page 16) of the draft report the executive summary states: “On the basis of the available data, it is not anticipated that the combination of metals which occurred as a result of the pollution incident would have caused or would be expected to cause delayed or persistent additive or synergistic effects.”
On inquiring of the secretariat of the Woods committee whether or not they had seen the medical records of people claiming to be suffering long- term effects from consuming the water, or whether or not they were going to undertake clinical or medical testing or assessments of the health of these people, I was told that they were not taking either of those courses. This appears to me to be a most extraordinary decision, as it is merely reiterating the statements made by Mr Waring and Barbara Clayton.
Many patients lost fingernails and toenails in the months following the event: one patient presented Professor Woods with a sample bottle of nails, which Professor Woods acknowledged with a nod but with no suggestion of conducting a metabolic investigation (para 1.27: “…further metabolic investigation of the patients’ nails was not required.”) Professor Woods and his team are highly qualified people, albeit without the presence on the committee of an expert in aluminium toxicity, it is therefore even more surprising that thoroughgoing and convincing clinical investigations have not been undertaken.
Elizabeth Sigmund Hon D Sc
Competing interests: None declared
Competing interests: None declared
Callington, Cornwall PL17 7HP
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