Anyone who wants to damage the largest possible number of people in the shortest possible time could find few better methods than sipping a large amount of poison into the public water supply system. That’s not actually what happened at South West Water’s unmanned Lowermoor Water Treatment Works in North Cornwall, but the incident that ocurred in July 1988 is still regarded as Britain’s Worst-ever breach of water-quality guidelines.
There was no malicious intent, and the compound that went into the drinking water – far from being poisonous – was actually aluminum sulphate, a chemical that helps to purify water by solidifying particulate matter. But it is applied in minute quantities compared to the amount of water being treated, and a delivery driver accidentally dumped 20 tons of the stuff into the wrong tank.
This resulted in a massive overdose of aluminum sulphate entering Camelford’s water supply – over 3000 times the maximum permitted amount, a concentration that stripped all sorts of other chemicals from lead and copper piping as it went. Though residents quickly started complaining about acidic water quality, it was two days before the problem was identified and action taken to prevent 20,000 users suffering additional exposure. Public anger erupted, along with claims of mismanagement and even cover-up.
People immediately started suffering from all sorts of symptoms, from hair turning blue, through acute skin irritation to sore throats and short-term memory loss. As time went on, many developed severe joint complaints and even brain damage. As always in these cases, where official enquiries tend to rule that there’s no proven link between cause and effect, the Lowermoor Incident Health Advisory Group concluded that there had been real suffering by the community, but decided it had been caused by anxiety rather than genuine physical ill-effects.
When: July 6 1988
Where: Camelford, Cornwall, UK
Toll: Studies continue into the long-term health implications of the Lowermoor pollution, as public perception (and considerable scientific opinion) suggests that the metallic chemical cocktail ingested in 1988 may eventually lead to the premature development of assorted but serious medical conditions.
You should know: South West Water was prosecuted and fined £10,000, plus £25,000 in costs. But they didn’t get off that cheaply, in 1994 – 140 victims were awarded compensation totaling £400,000 for documented injuries caused by the incident.