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Lowermoor poison campaigners call for select committee investigation

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: July 06, 2013

  • The Lowermoor Treatment Works on Bodmin Moor that was the scene of Britain's worst mass poisoning. Below: Carole Cross, who died in 2004, aged 59

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Campaigners have called for a House of Commons select committee inquiry into the alleged cover-up surrounding Britain's worst mass poisoning, in Cornwall 25 years ago.

On July 6, 1988, the water supply serving 20,000 people living in North Cornwall – from Boscastle down to Port Isaac – was turned into an acidic cocktail of metals after an error at the unmanned Lowermoor water treatment works on Bodmin Moor.

While hundreds reported immediate symptoms, from diarrhoea and vomiting to skin rashes and fatigue, many believe their health has been affected in the long term.

Campaigners have always suspected that the handling of the incident was influenced by the impending privatisation of the industry. And despite three official inquiries into the health implications of the incident, as well as an inquest, they believe further investigation is warranted.

Peter Smith, a Truro-based homeopath and chairman of the Lowermoor Support Group, said the incident had turned into a "massive experiment on 20,000 human guinea pigs" compounded by a "truly appalling medical and scientific failure".

He added: "People need to be examined and treated urgently, with no further interference by those determined to protect their reputations.

"We strongly believe that the quickest route to achieve this is via the powerful and independent cross-party Commons health select committee."

Mr Smith and Doug Cross both resigned from the Government-ordered investigation into the long-term health implications of the incident before the final draft of its report was published in April.

The report, which both men claimed was flawed, said further research was needed on the possible impact on unborn babies and young children, as well as the neurological effects. But it concluded that it was "unlikely" the pollution had "caused delayed or persistent harm to health among local people".

The Department of Health has yet to decide whether to take the recommendations from the committee forward.

Mr Cross's 59-year-old wife Carole died in 2004 from a rare neurological disease usually associated with Alzheimer's.

Two leading scientists told the hearing it was "highly likely" that the aluminium found in her brain was a factor in her death.

"Twenty five years on and still they pretend that nothing really happened, on that hot July day back in 1988," Mr Cross said.

"When we told them how sick we were, they laughed, and said that we were hysterical. When we asked for help they gave us only insults and derision.

"When some of us began to die from strange and unexpected illnesses, they shuffled their feet a little, and said, 'Ah well, people die all the time.'"

He added: "I know that there is still much to be done, much that can be done, if only they would admit that they were wrong.

"But the culture of denial infests the whole of the state – once a mistake is made it can never, ever be admitted, never ever remedied. We are left with our memories, of what was, and of what could have been.

"What is done, is done. What is to come, I do not know. That is now the only question that we need to be answered."

A further inquest is due to be held into the death of a 60-year-old man whose condition has also been linked with the Lowermoor incident.

Richard Gibbons, from Tintagel in North Cornwall, died in 2010. His family confirmed tests had shown "high levels" of aluminium in his brain.

No date has been set for the inquiry, which will be heard by West Somerset coroner Michael Rose who also handled the inquest into the death of Mrs Cross.

Still searching for ‘smoking gun’ document

While the inquest into the death of Carole Cross shone a light on what went on behind closed doors at the then South West Water Authority in the wake of the Lowermoor poisoning, questions still remain about what was being said in Whitehall, writes Andy Greenwood.

There has always been a nagging suspicion that the

impending privatisation of

the water industry, which eventually sold for £3.59 billion, affected how the incident and its aftermath was handled. What became clear at the inquest into the death of Mrs Cross, which began in November 2010 and concluded after an adjournment in March 2012, was the confusion which surrounded the authority’s response.

Workers initially believed they were dealing with a problem caused by the failure of lime pumps at the moorland site. However suspicions turned just two days later when staff noticed that stocks of aluminium sulphate were running low despite having had a delivery.

John Lewis, the district manager in charge of the treatment works, was dismissed over the incident. He claims he was scapegoated.

“I was the only one who lost my job, for what I consider were political reasons. I’m talking about total politics because privatisation was about to commence.”

When authority chairman Keith Court gave evidence, he was asked by West Somerset coroner Michael Rose if the authority had been “trying to hide the true nature of the incident from the public”.

Mr Court said it was a “difficult decision” which had been reached after discussions with senior officials within the Department of Environment. He added: “It could arise undue alarm and concern customers because the distribution system had been flushed down and pH levels were getting back to normal.”

Since the Freedom of Information Act, government documents have shown that the incident was looked at with one eye on privatisation. But the “smoking gun” – the order from Whitehall to sweep it under the carpet – remains elusive, if it in fact exists.

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