Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Inquiry questions long term effects on health of Camelford incident

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 03 February 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:275

Rapid Response:

Handling of the Camelford incident by the Department of Health

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

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: No competing interests

07 April 2005
Elizabeth J Sigmund
Environmental campaigner
Callington, Cornwall PL17 7HP