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Campaigners criticise report into Camelford water poisoning

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f3376 (Published 23 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3376

Re: Campaigners criticise report into Camelford water poisoning

In your recent News Report on the publication of the Final Report of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals (CoT) [1] you should be aware that criticism of this document is not confined to ‘campaigners’. Peter Smith and I served as Local Representatives on the Lowermoor Sub-Group (LSG) of CoT, appointed by Lord Tyler and Secretary of State Michael Meacher in 2001. We resigned in October last year, refusing to be associated with the proposed Final Report.

The original Draft, published for public consultation in 2005, was severely criticised by a large number of specialists in the field of aluminium toxicology. Much of that criticism has not been, and indeed can not now be addressed under the LSG’s Terms of Reference, nor by modification of the methodology adopted for the study. Since many of these defects persist unresolved in the LSG’s Final Report, most of that expert criticism remains valid. So the Report's misrepresentation of the extent of expert concern raises serious questions regarding its reliability.

The CoT’s web site provides direct electronic access to the latest documents [2]. However, the manner in which the contents of that Report are presented for access is highly misleading. Appendix 5 contains comments on the 2005 Draft, but the links to it on the web page direct readers only to four minor and anodyne letters. Appendix 6, the LSG’s response to comments on the Draft, consists of a mere three pages, in which almost all criticism is either summarily dismissed or else ignored.

This gives the impression that there was little adverse criticism of the Draft, and that even that has been fully resolved. The Final Report now appears to present a consensus on the health effects of the incident, whereas careful examination of the Main Report itself leads to a different conclusion.

In April 2005, Dr. (now Professor) Christopher Exley, at Keele University, a recognised world authority on aluminium ecotoxicology, submitted a devastating analysis of the in-built defects of the Draft, and BMJ published a similar statement by him, co-signed by 58 of his international colleagues [3]. This and feedback from others revealed considerable concern within the scientific and medical communities at the deflection of Meacher’s study into a politically unthreatening ‘risk assessment, when it should have been a far more incisive and pro-active field investigation of the incident.

Yet this crucial peer-reviewed commentary is now hidden from the public gaze. It occupies 95 unnumbered pages within the weighty Lowermoor Water Pollution Incident - Report. (pages 341 to 436 of the PDF file). In stark contrast to the prominent links on the web site to the relatively trivial Appendix 5 letters, and to the derisory Appendix 6 rebuff of criticism, there is no indication to the serious reader on the web page that a great deal more expert and decidedly adverse comment actually exists, It appears that a deliberate attempt has been made to conceal derision for the study amongst world experts in aluminium toxicology.

From the start, intense political opposition has been evident within the Department of Health (DoH) to any detailed investigation of the medical impacts of this incident, only 18 months before the planned privatisation of the water sector.The role of South West Water Authority (SWWA) has been fully established in the courts. In the inquest into my wife’s death in 2004, evidence by Profs. Exley and Esiri [4] raised very serious concerns over the DoH’s persistent denial that long-term effects were possible, yet this irrational conclusion reappears in the LSG Final Report, despite clear indications of the unreliability of that claim.

The sustained attempts by the DoH to prevent investigation of its own actions have resulted in serious miscarriages of justice, demanding a thorough and independent formal inquiry. By preventing the dispatch of an emergency Incident Control Team from the National Poisons Information Service at Guys Hospital during the incident [5] the DoH directly obstructed access to essential contemporary forensic evidence during subsequent legal proceedings

Then, in 2001 the DoH manipulated the study’s Terms of Reference to prevent the LSG examining its own role in the incident, and the absence of any member with recognised expertise in aluminium ecotoxicology has been remarked upon by a number of specialists in this field. Instead the study has been comfortably converted to the meaningless ‘risk assessment’ that has now been released by CoT.

So in response to your article on this Report, those most deeply concerned over the conclusions of this parody of incident investigation are not simply ‘campaigners’. We are professional scientists who are experienced in investigating environmental incidents and plans that have posed, or are likely to pose, serious harm to the public. We view with alarm and concern the travesty of scientific methodology that has been employed to compile this Report and present it to the public.

It does not, and it can not, replace a directly targeted forensic examination in which evidence is collected to a standard that is acceptable in legal proceedings. It is insulting to offer, after 25 years of apparent indifference, an irrelevant and highly flawed amateur risk assessment to the 20,000 people who were caught up in this terrifying incident. The Report depends on an inexpert assessment of mainly unvalidated anecdotal evidence and largely irrelevant published literature, instead of presenting the results of an active attempt to verify what the effects of this unique event really were. The DoH must be called to immediate account for its cynical and unethical mismanagement of the medical sector’s response to one of one of the greatest scandals in British public health history.

Douglas Cross, CSci. CBiol. FSB

References
1. Campaigners criticise report into Camelford water poisoning. BMJ 2013;346:f3376 23rd May 2013
Available at http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f3376
2. Available at http://cot.food.gov.uk/cotwg/lowermoorsub/draftlowermoorreport/
3. Exley et al. Inquiry questions long term effects on health of Camelford incident.
Available at http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/30/aluminium-and-camelford
4. Exley C, Esiri MM (2006).Severe cerebral congophilic angiopathy coincident with increased brain aluminium in a resident of Camelford, Cornwall, UK. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2006 Jul;77(7):877-9. Epub 2006 Apr 20. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16627535
5. Sigmund E. Inquiry questions long term effects on health of Camelford incident. Available at http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/30/handling-camelford-incident...

Competing interests: I was employed as Deputy Fisheries Officer by the Cornwall River Authority, a precursor to SWWA, between 1966 and 1968. I was a resident of Camelford, North Cornwall, from 1980 to 1989, and worked with local GP Dr. Richard Newman, and other professional scientists collecting data on the impacts of the incident. My wife developed a rapidly fatal early-onset undiagnosed form of dementia in late 2002, and died in February 2004. I arranged for post mortem brain samples to be provided to Profs. Exley and Esiri for detailed examination. I have assisted a number of other families to donate brain tissues from deceased members for analysis. I served as a Local Representative of the LSG from 2002 to 2012, until resigning in October last year.

18 June 2013
Douglas W. Cross
Environmental Consultant
None
Ulverston, Cumbria LA12