Camelford, England has its origins around 1259 and local folklore suggests that Camelford was once Camelot of King Arthur legend, but that has never been actually proved, it is conjecture. What is not conjecture is that in 1988 contamination of the drinking water supply saw 20 tons of aluminum sulfate in the water raising the concentration to 3,000 times the allowable limit. As the aluminum sulphate broke down it produced tons of sulfuric acid which stripped chemicals from pipes as well as lead and copper piping in people’s homes. People who came into contact with the contaminated water experienced a range of short-term health effects such as joint pain, diarrhea, blistering of the skin, and hair turning shades of green from copper residue in the water. Many victims suffered long-term effects. The early deaths of many Camelford residents are believed to be associated with the contaminated water, but there has been no rigorous monitoring of the health of the victims since the incident, considered Britain's worst mass poisoning event affecting about 20,000 people. Inquests on people who died many years later found very high levels of aluminum in their brain.
Immediately after the contamination authorities said the water was safe to drink, (exactly like the Elk River contamination in West Virginia in early 2014) and it was advised to use juice to cover any unpleasant taste – a ridiculous comment at best. In an inquest in 2012 into the death of one of the victims, the coroner stated that the South West Water Authority had been “gambling with as many as 20,000 lives” when they failed to inform the public about the poisoning for 16 days. There were allegations of a cover-up and West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose stated: “I found there was a deliberate policy to not advise the public of the true nature until some 16 days after the occurrence of the incident.” Following an investigation by the government's Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, the former Environment Minister claimed that “various associated bodies tried to bury the inquiry from the start. This has become a tug of war between the truth and an attempt to silence the truth.” In 2014 a final government report was issued which stated there was no link between the 20 suspected deaths and the water poisoning. The town is still divided on that since the coroner’s report reached vastly different conclusions than the official government report.
In the U.S, as well as the UK, the name of the game is sadly and dubiously called “Risk Assessment,” a process of estimating the threat that environmental contaminants pose to humans. Scientists generally base risk assessments on toxicity studies performed on laboratory animals and on data from human exposure in the workplace where a chemical is made or used. These studies estimate potential health threats to people exposed over many years to low levels of chemicals in drinking water, but these types of studies also produce ambiguous results. Uncertainties stem from incomplete data and the difficulty of comparing health effects on laboratory animals to real humans living in a real environment. The risk assessment for a chemical usually does not take into account all chemicals people are exposed to in water, food and air. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has assessed the risk of a number of pesticides and volatile organic chemicals (VOC) sometimes found in drinking water. Tetrachloroethylene, a common VOC is used in dry cleaning solvents, metal degreasers, textile dyes, aerosols, and household pesticides. Experts suspect it can cause cancer and liver and kidney damage in humans. The EPA estimates that one part per billion tetrachloroethylene in drinking water could lead to one or two additional cases of cancer in a population of one million people who drink such water over a 70-year time frame. In other words, certain death, but at such low levels, it not considered harmful to the greater population. But knowing that toxic water will eventually cause certain death is clearly not enough of a motivator. But in Italy, it was worse.
In the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius just outside of Naples is the village of Acerra. The national average for juvenile brain tumors in Italy is just 0.5 for every 100,000 children. But for Acerra’s 55,000 residents, the average number is three children with brain cancer at any given time, which has been attributed to the willful dumping of toxic chemicals into the ground and water by the Camorra crime syndicate. Over the last 20 years thousands of tons of toxic waste have been dumped, burned and buried in an area known as the ‘triangle of death’ that runs from Naples to Caserta to Mt. Vesuvius. The toxins have so polluted the groundwater and poisoned the soil the Italian government refers to the area as the “terra di tumori” - land of tumors. But in another tale of government irresponsibility, have they done anything?
According to a study by the Pascale Institute in Naples, the mortality rate from cancer in this triangle of death has risen between 15 and 20% over the last decade. But in some towns, like Acerra, the increase is more than 30%. If nothing is done to clean the soil and decontaminate the water supply the rate is expected to grow to 47% for men and 40% for women by this year, 2016. The Pascale study found that 9,969 people have died from cancer and pulmonary diseases, allegedly related to the toxic waste and water, since 2005. The British journal The Lancet, first analyzed the rising levels of toxins after the U.S. military base in Naples started warning troops and their families stationed in the area not to drink the water or eat dairy products because of suspected high levels of toxins. Then the U.S. Navy did its own study in 2011 and found that high levels of arsenic, fecal coliform, banned insecticides, and dioxins were found in random tests of water samples in the area. The report warned U.S. military personnel based in Naples to stay clear of the local water supplies, suggesting the “use of bottled water for off-base personnel, for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth, making ice, and for pets, due to the widespread presence of contaminants as measured in the tap water, as well as the other drinking water system infrastructure deficiencies.”
The Italian government has been reluctant to admit they have known about the problem for years in spite of court transcripts in 1997 by a former Camorra underling named Carmine Schiavone, who detailed first-hand the Camorra’s actions. “It became a real business, which brought money in, but the residents risked dying of cancer within 20 years. I don’t think they can be saved,” he told the court. “We have killed your children.” Schiavone says he went to the police because he could no longer stand by and watch the illegal activity. “I warned them that this toxic waste would kill entire generations. They told me not to worry, and just drink bottled water.” It is estimated that more than 100,000 tons of toxic waste have been dumped in the area between 1991 and 2013, even implying the use of 400,000 semi trucks that ferried the waste from more 443 Italian companies who reportedly commissioned the Camorra to do their dirty work (literally) rather than disposing of the waste properly. If there is indeed government collusion on this, it unmasks the vulnerability of the municipal water supply.
Can your tap water kill you? The unfortunate answer is yes – though to be clear these are uncommon occurrences and my objective is never to produce fear, but to produce change. The above examples show that contaminated tap water can kill sometimes quickly, and sometimes over a period of decades and this is the exact reason we need to be vigilant about our water supplies and uncover governmental mismanagement, like what is happening in Flint right now, fix the problem and prosecute those who clearly do wrong to our water.