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Man had high levels of aluminium in his brain after drinking contaminated Camelford water, inquest hears

By CG_News  |  Posted: March 13, 2014

The Lowermoor treatment works in Camelford

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A man who drank water from a contaminated supply in north Cornwall was later found to have four times the normal level of aluminium in his brain, an inquest heard.

Richard Gibbons, 60, had been “fit and healthy” before he consumed poisoned water which was mistakenly supplied to 20,000 homes in Camelford in 1988.

But soon after the incident – Britain’s worst mass poisoning – his health began deteriorating, with the father-of-four developing epilepsy in 2005.

Mr Gibbons’ condition became so severe he was suffering epileptic fits up to seven times a day and died on May 27 2010.

An inquest heard a link between Mr Gibbons’ epilepsy and the incident, in which 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate were accidentally added to the water supply, could not be proven.

However, experts told West Somerset Coroner’s Court Mr Gibbons’ brain had “unusually high” levels of aluminium and “grossly reduced blood flow”.

Michael Rose, sitting as deputy coroner for Cornwall, recorded a narrative conclusion at the inquest.

“Richard Gibbons was exposed to aluminium poisoning at Tintagel, Cornwall in 1988 and he died on May 27 2010,” the coroner said.

“A high level of aluminium was found in the hippocampus (area of the brain) after death but a subsequent post-mortem found the cause of death to be aspiration of food due to epilepsy.

“A causal relationship between the aluminium and the seizure cannot be established.”

Double glazing salesman Mr Gibbons lived at the end of the line for water supplied by the Lowermoor treatment works.

The disaster happened in July 1988, when a relief lorry worker dumped the chemical into the wrong tank at the deserted yard.

Members of the public were not told the cause of the poisoning for 16 days - with the now defunct South West Water Authority insisting it was safe to drink.

Mr Rose added: “It was a disgrace. It should never, ever happen again.”

Dr Paul Abbott, Mr Gibbons’ GP at Bottreaux Surgery, said he had been “fit and healthy” until shortly after the incident, when he developed psychological and psychiatric problems.

“He was convinced throughout his life that the water incident had caused these problems,” Dr Abbott said.

“I am sure that Richard’s wish would be that his death was fully investigated and any traces of aluminium in his brain noted.”

Two years ago at an inquest into the death of another Camelford resident, Carole Cross, Mr Rose said there was a “very real possibility” ingestion of the aluminium had contributed to her death.

Mrs Cross, 59, died in 2004, after suffering from the rare neurological disorder cerebral amyloid angiopathy. A post-mortem examination found high levels of aluminium in Mrs Cross’ brain.

During the inquest expert witness Professor Christopher Exley, of Keele University, said high levels of aluminium were also found in hippocampus part of Mr Gibbons’ brain – which plays an important role in memory.

“We found a level of 4.35 mg aluminium per gram dry weight of tissue,” Prof Exley said.

“This is abnormally high. If one finds above one, it is a little unusual, if it is above two it is more unusual and the level we have here is very unusual.”

He said other parts of Mr Gibbons’ brain tissue appeared to be calcified and showed “very high levels” of aluminium.

Dr David Hilton, a consultant neuropathologist at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, said the cause of Mr Gibbons’ death was aspiration of food, secondary to an epileptic seizure.

Dr Hilton, who has worked at the hospital since 1986, added: “In my opinion, we don’t have any evidence that aluminium exposure made a significant contribution to his death.

“I agree that he was exposed to aluminium and he had high levels of aluminium in his brain.”

Dr Gillian Vivian, a consultant in nuclear medicine and radiology at King’s College Hospital London, performed a perfusion scan on Mr Gibbons’ brain in 1995.

“There was grossly reduced blood flow throughout the brain,” Dr Vivian said.

“It is not a recognisable pattern, I found it a very difficult examination to report.

“It has been described as the sort of pattern in patients who have had very high drug doses or are very heavily drugged but we had no history of that for Mr Gibbons.”

Dr Vivian said there was no evidence in scientific papers to associate the abnormal pattern with exposure to aluminium.

The inquest heard Mr Gibbons developed memory loss, ulcers, stomach pains, passed blood and had skin rashes after drinking the water following the incident.

His son-in-law, Philip Reed, said Mr Gibbons drank a large amount of coffee using the poisoned water.

“His illness made life after 1988 very hard for him and his family,” Mr Reed told the inquest.

“We just hope we can get some answers.”

The coroner said he believed answers would be provided in coming decades with developments in science.

“I have the feeling that we are on the edge of science here,” Mr Rose said.

“Somebody will, in 20, 30 or 40 years be able to solve the problem immediately. I think if this case was heard in 30 years, it may go further.”

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