The Lowermoor poisoning incident is back in the news:"Water staff told 'keep quiet' over Camelford poisoning".
This is what I wrote back in 2006, slightly edited, in the context of an essay about the difference between the scientific method and authority statements made by scientists:
On the 6th of July 1988, 20 tonnes of concentrat ed aluminium sulphate solution were discharged into the treated water reservoir at Lowermoor, Cornwall, which serves the town of Camelford. Local residents and holidaymakers who drank the water experienced a variety of acute effects, and a lesser number also remained ill for a long time there after.
Six months later a committee ("Group") was set up under Dame Barbara Clayton to provide independent expert advice to the Secretary of State for Health.
The group noted that this incident was unique in the history of pollution; there was no previous experience of humans taking in this particular cocktail of ionic lead, zinc, copper, aluminium, and sul phate. They noted that the symptoms of the people was also unique.
They had wide ranging problems, with sore/dry mouth, felt unwell and tired, had stomach aches, were very thirsty, had nausea and vomiting, itching, sore eyes, and mouth ulcers. The persistent effects noted by the group were aches and joint pains, memory loss, poor concentration, speech problems, depression and behavioural problems in children, hypersensitivity, rashes and mouth ulcers, and gastrointestinal disorders. These symptoms do not fit into any recognised diagnostic category.
So the observation is a unique toxic insult, and a unique resultant syndrome.
The reasonable hypothesis here is that the toxins caused the illness.
Surprisingly, instead of testing this hypothesis by advising on necessary medical and scientific studies, the group opened their textbooks, and looked up the known effects of each of the ions, taken in isolation.
In each case they found that the ion in those concentrations were incapable of causing those effects.
On this evidence, which was book-based scholastic theory that did not relate to mixtures of ions, they con cluded that the cocktail was incapable of causing the observed ill ness. There was specific scientific evidence of deposition of aluminium in the bones of one affected case. The group specifically advised against following up this lead.
The group concluded that their book-learning could not account for the illness and that ergo, the symptoms were due to "anxiety". There was no psychiatrist in the group to advise on this point. As a result of the public outcry that followed, the Clayton Group was reconvened, and came to the conclusion that they had been quite right in the first place.
Years later, the affected citizens were given out-of-court settlements in compensation for their suffering.
This incident occurred when South West Water was being prepared for privatisation. Which would explain why staff were told to keep quiet, in the BBC report above.
We can conclude from this that the statements of scientists, especially those working at the behest of Government, are not necessarily "scientific" but statements based on their authority as eminent and respectable scientists. In the Lowermor case, the scientists did not use the scientific method, but the scholastic method, the same line that the Church used to discredit Galileo.
As Galileo might have said "Quel puzzi"
I tried to express this at the time, wrote to the newpapers, but you try talking to a journalist about scholastic method and watch his eyes glaze over. Thank the gods for the blogosphere, where we can discuss complex ideas.