Camelford Water Pollution Case

Irwin Mitchell co-ordinated the Steering Group of solicitors representing victims of the Camelford Water Pollution incident which occurred in Cornwall in July 1988.

A temporary driver for South West Water dumped 20 tons of aluminium sulphate into the wrong tank at the Lowermoor water treatment plant. The plant was an unmanned installation and the driver was unfamiliar with the plant layout and delivery procedures. Aluminium sulphate, used to remove solid particles from cloudy water, went in highly concentrated quantities directly into the mains water supply to 20,000 homes. The acidity of the water caused by the aluminium sulphate stripped a cocktail of chemicals from the pipe networks as well as lead and copper piping in people’s homes.

Residents complained to South West Water about the taste and effects of skin irritation. Some residents' hair turned blue. The public were assured by a spokesman for the water authority that the water, whilst tasting slightly acidic, was safe to drink. It took 2 days before the cause of the problem was identified.

Over the following months, hundreds of the town's residents complained of a range of symptoms including skin rashes, joint pain, sore throats, short term memory problems and general exhaustion. The complaints were investigated by the government appointed Lowermoor Incident Health Advisory Group which reported upon the health effects of the incident in 2 reports delivered in 1989 and 1991. The Advisory Group concluded that there was no convincing evidence that harmful accumulation of aluminium had occurred and that there was a greater prevalence of ill health due to the toxic effects of the contaminated water. The Advisory Group recognised real suffering within the community, but attributed this to anxiety rather than physical health effects, a conclusion which angered many residents.

South West Water Authority were prosecuted and fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £25,000 in costs.

Irwin Mitchell represented Claimants in a civil action against South West Water for compensation for injury. In 1994, 148 victims accepted compensation totalling almost £400,000 in a settlement approved by the High Court in Truro.

Local residents' concerns about future long term health problems have continued. A working group was set up by the UK government in August 1991 consisting of 5 members of the Committee of Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environmental (CoT). The group was chaired by Professor Frank Woods of the University of Sheffield.

The terms of references for the investigation was to advise upon whether the exposure to chemicals had caused or was expected to cause delayed or persistent harm to human health and whether the existing programme of monitoring or research of health effects of the incident should be augmented.

The Advisory Group reported in February 2005 and found no conclusive link between the incident and chronic symptoms and diseases reported. However the group recommended further work to be undertaken about the effects of the contaminants on neurological health, the effects on the development of children aged less than 1 year old at the time of the incident and the incidence of disease in joints among people in the affected area.

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