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A very British cover-up

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The continued determination of the Department of Health to prevent an investigation into its role in obstructing justice over the Camelford water poisoning incident reveals a government Department that is now completely out of control.

Doug Cross
25th June 2013

For a government that is obsessed with secrecy, the current media frenzy surrounding the latest exposures of government cover-ups in the National Health Service draws unwelcome public attention to the culture of obstruction, concealment and whitewash that infests the public sector.

The recent spate of scandals revealing the incompetence and indifference to patient suffering gives the impression that the financial crisis affecting the country has led to an alarming fall in standards in the health care sector. But with media attention now switching to exposures on the obsessively secret world of surveillance, espionage and undercover character assassination, it may appear that the pressure on the failings of the health sector may at last be falling off.

In fact, the culture of institutional self-protection within the health sector has been endemic for decades. Now a new scandal is about to break that will reveal just how pervasive is this culture of control within the Dept of Health. (DoH) A group of MPs is now demanding that senior Health Ministers permit a Parliamentary Select Committee of Inquiry to look into the long-running cover-up of the lethal after-effects of the Camelford water poisoning incident in 1988.

A quarter of a century of denial and obstruction

July 6th marks the 25th anniversary of the accidental dumping of a load of concentrated aluminium sulphate solution into the wrong tank at the Lowermoor Water Treatment works, on Davidstow Moor just outside the North Cornwall town of Camelford. For a quarter of a century the people have tried to get the DoH to take an interest in their continuing health problems - and their appeals have been repeatedly dismissed.

There is now abundant evidence of the incompetence and corruption that is entrenched within the National Health Service. The scandal of Camelford provides yet another example of why it is so important to demand an incisive investigation into the policy of secrecy and obstruction that has protected exposure of the Department’s shady and disreputable role in this notorious incident.

In April this year the government’s advisers, the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals (CoT), finally published the results of its 12 year study into this affair. As a world authority on aluminium toxicology Prof. Chris Exley, of Keele University, UK, commented in BMJ recently:
If ever there was a panel set up with the absolute intention of achieving nothing then this is such a model for the future.

A manufactured catastrophe - transforming an accident into a disaster

And now things are starting to go wrong. New and highly inconvenient evidence is about to emerge that will finally force the government to hold an in-depth inquiry into the secrecy over the incident, managed from behind firmly closed doors in Whitehall to protect the government’s planned privatisation of the water sector.

But the inquiry will also want to know why the DoH has stuck firmly to that policy of secrecy, intimidation, and suppression of alarming medical evidence for a quarter of a century, long after the incident itself was over. Heads will undoubtedly roll, and reputations collapse - the questions to be answered now are not just who was responsible, but why it was considered then, and remains even now, so important to suppress the medical evidence that indicated that this incident could, and would eventually, kill.

When 20,000 people in North Cornwall woke to find their tap water tasted terrible and that washing with it burned their skin and stained their hair and towels blue, they were told that there was nothing to worry about. There had been a ‘slight problem’, the Water Authority reassured us, but it was sorted and the water was safe to drink. If the taste was unacceptable, we were told that we could mix it with orange juice!

And it was a deliberate lie. Things had not been sorted - in fact they were about to get a lot worse. Yet absolutely no information was released about the cause; the water and health sector seemed to have locked the doors and taken the phones off the hook. Only during times of war has the British government gone to such lengths to conceal unpalatable truths from the public.

In the summer of 1988 I, along with 20,000 other people in North Cornwall woke to find that our tap water was grossly contaminated with an undisclosed chemical. Neither the Water nor the Health Authority would tell us what that chemical was - only three weeks later did we learn that it was aluminium sulphate.

Many of us found it impossible to drink that vile water, but those who did so then experienced alarming symptoms that made them ill for weeks afterwards. When pets drank the water given to them that morning, they died. Farm livestock sickened and many died when they had no alternative but to drink from troughs fed with tap water.

Within hours of the accidental contamination at the Lowermoor Water Treatment Works on Davidstowe Moor, just above the town, it was decided to flush the contaminated water out of the system. For 20 miles downstream every fish in the River Camel downstream of Camelford died.

Secrecy, obstruction and lies.

But it was already too late. Within only a few hours the aluminium had spread through most of the water distribution system in and around the town itself, and was already on its way through the pipes supplying the coastal holiday resorts of Boscastle, Tintagel, Port Isaac, Polzeath and Rock.

But still no-one would tell us what was in our water. The local Health Authority knew within a day or so, but ignored pleas for help. When local doctors, concerned at the disconcerting effects on their patients, asked for information from the DoH, they were assured that there was no health risk. This deliberate misinformation was responsible for the widespread dismissal of the overwhelming evidence of medical harm by the local health sector, a rejection that has lasted even up to the present.

When the Water Authority finally admitted that it was aluminium in our water, the national and local Health Authorities acted swiftly to prevent panic. They reassured us that aluminium could not get into our blood, so there were no health risks. They lied - I knew, because I had done a little research on aluminium poisoning, twenty years earlier.

So with Dr Richard Newman, my local GP, I salvaged what evidence I could. Later, our original research with Dr Neil Ward at Surrey University provided the only contemporary evidence on what had really happened to some of the people and animals that had been exposed to this lethal water.

But within days, the DoH was systematically obstructing all efforts to investigate the medical effects of this unprecedented incident. Orders were issued to stop the dispatch of an Emergency Response Team from the National Poisons Unit. Independent toxicological and medical experts planning to come to Cornwall were warned off.

When the government was eventually forced to set up a superficial initial inquiry in 1989, a member of its reliably conservative expert panel reported that he had discovered that some people were ‘super-absorbers’ of aluminium. Had this evidence become public knowledge it would have destroyed the entire charade that aluminium could not get into our blood. So it was suppressed from public disclosure.

Instead we were arrogantly informed by the government’s reliable ‘experts’ that all our complaints were due to anxiety, contagious hysteria brought on by sensational media coverage. Nothing, it seemed, could be allowed to destroy the illusion that the incident was merely an unfortunate but unthreatening accident that was swiftly and safely over.

Intimidation of scientists and victims.

Some experts were not convinced. I collaborated with a respected professor of genetics, who carried out a simple experiment on pregnant mice. She was profoundly disturbed at what she found. But she was prevented from publishing her work. Late one evening her daughter-in-law had received an anonymous telephone call, warning her that she would come to severe harm is her husband, the professor’s son, did not stop investigating the incident for the Guardian newspaper.

Despite the official reassurances, some people in the district continued to suffer from severely debilitating symptoms. But when they continued to complain they report that they were told by their doctor to go away, or to register with another practice. Medical records were unaccountably ‘lost’; one patient said that his records had been altered to make it appear that he had developed kidney failure before the incident, when if fact this was the result of drinking the contaminated water.

Sabotaging the Secretary of State’s investigation.

Even senior politicians were obstructed when they took up the challenge to investigate the DoH’s role in the scandal. In 2001 Secretary of state for Environment, Michael Meacher MP, set up a new investigation into the incident, after he was shocked at what he heard at a meeting with residents in Camelford. But his potentially politically dangerous interest was immediately neutralised by his own Department and the DoH. The remit of the study was altered, to prevent the panel from examining the role of the DoH in misleading the public and obstructing the collection of forensic evidence of the damage to people and animals.

The panel did not include a single recognised expert on aluminium toxicology, nor did it accept the invitation of a world leader in this field to take an active participation in the investigation. Professor Chris Exley of Keele University, UK, offered to work with the panel, but his offer was ignored. I had been the only scientist with experience in investigating environmental disasters and resident in Camelford at the time of the incident, so Lord Tyler insisted that I represent the local community on the study panel.

But instead of carrying out a full investigation of the incident, as a major chemical spill affecting thousands of people, the study was transformed into a safe and meaningless ‘risk assessment’. It relied on unconfirmed anecdotal evidence from the public and a wholly inadequate review of published literature to estimate the probable effects, entirely failing to do anything that might actually reveal what really had happened to the people whom it interviewed.

Inconvenient evidence

In 2004 my wife died unexpectedly from an unknown rapidly fatal form of early-onset dementia. Prof. Exley and his colleague Prof. Margaret Esiri, an internationally recognised specialist in neuropathology, carried out the exacting analysis that revealed the presence of unprecedentedly elevated aluminium concentrations in her brain.

The results brought the study to an abrupt halt. At the end of the protracted inquest in 2012 the West Somerset Coroner, Mr. Michael Rose, issued a narrative verdict, saying that it was probable that her exposure to the incident either led to or accelerated the onset of her fatal condition.

A disreputable publication - CoT’s Final Report

In April this year, the Final Report of the panel was at last published. Predictably, it was an anodyne and amateur attempt to predict what might happen should such an incident reoccur. It preserved almost unchanged its earlier conclusions, issued in a draft ‘consultation’ version of the report, that there were unlikely to be adverse medical effects. In October 2012 I had already resigned, in protest over the failure of the study to carry out Mr. Meacher’s intended investigation and refusing to be associated with this travesty of scientific research.

Protecting the guilty

Now, new evidence suggests that my wife’s case was not unique, and that others may indeed be at serious risk of developing anomalous dementia in the future. Was the initial political concern over the possible failure of the privatisation of the water sector later reinforced by the emerging inconvenient evidence that the Dept of Health’s medical advice had been completely worthless?

I suspect that this is the case. The initial resistance to treating the incident as the full-blown medical emergency that it actually was almost certainly prevented an impartial investigation at the time. But after the water sector was sold off 18 months later there could be no further political reason not to admit that there might really be problems, and get on with looking into them.

But instead, the lies and obstruction continued, and the DoH did everything possible to frustrate further monitoring and analysis. Even from the start of Mr. Meacher’s study, 14 years after the incident, it was determined to frustrate his attempt to expose the DoH’s covert activities, as I saw all too clearly during the twelve years that I sat on that panel.

Demonstration of the central role of aluminium in dementia emerged during my wife’s inquest. Now, additional equally alarming information will soon be released in an inquest on another recent victim. Members of a number of local families have recently died in tragic and traumatic circumstances, that they believe were caused by involvement in the 1988 incident. But because the health sector still attempts to obstruct the vital post mortem studies that should be carried out on these people, I find myself being asked to help them get the crucial brain samples to Prof. Exley.

Time for action

The release of the grotesquely misleading Final Report on the supposed absence of ‘risks’ from aluminium is only the latest example of the corruption that pervades the Dept of Health and the health sector generally. This long-running cover-up reveals just how determined the health sector is to protect its own interests, even as people sicken and die. As Prof. Exley comments on the CoT’s Report in the BMJ,
The very limited (and wholly independent) science which has investigated Camelford to date has demonstrated that there is a story to be told. This is perhaps why this report has gone out of its way to prevent this from happening.

The rest of those who have been the unwilling victims of an appalling miscarriage of ethical behaviour and justice for the past 25 years can only wait and hope that they will not have to experience the desperate anguish caused by the relentless descent into complete incapacity that has so profoundly afflicted others within the community.

Douglas Cross, CSci. CBiol. FSB.
25th June 2013

Sources of additional information.

Exley & Esiri report on Carole Cross, 2006
Original BMJ news report, May 2013
Doug Cross rapid response to Final Report 2013
All responses to BMJ report May-June 2013
All responses to draft report, 2005
Final report of committee on Toxicity, April 2013
Description of the incident and its aftermath

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