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Airborne aluminium exposure

The dangers of airborne aluminium exposure may yet be felt by the Grenfell survivors and nearby residents of Grenfell Tower. To see why, we need to look back to a recent disastrous case of mass aluminium poisoning.

In 1988 twenty tonnes of aluminium sulphate were inadvertently added to the potable water supply serving Camelford in north Cornwall. One might then add that ‘the rest is history’ except it is also the present and, according to new research published in the journal, Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology, it is also likely to be the future for some individuals.

This new research describes unusual neuropathological features coincident with elevated levels of brain aluminium in an individual who was exposed to the catastrophic poisoning event in Camelford in 1988. This is only the second ‘Camelford’ brain to be fully investigated and the results reported in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The first was that of a woman who died in her fifties of a severe case of congophilic amyloid angiopathy with coincident elevated levels of brain aluminium (Exley & Esiri (2006) J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiat 77, 877-879). The only reason why there are data for these two individuals is because the families insisted upon independent neuropathological investigations of their brains. There has not been any official scientific investigation into the health of exposed individuals in the 29 years since Camelford.

None of the, admittedly limited, recommendations of the Department of Health’s report on Camelford have been acted upon to-date. The apparent United Kingdom Government philosophy appears to be that if it is ignored for long enough then it will eventually go away. The latest research suggests otherwise. We know that acute environmental or occupational exposures to aluminium contribute towards Alzheimer’s disease and it is surely time to acknowledge such and thereby allow the public to be informed of the dangers of human exposure to aluminium.

In recent days, individuals living in the near vicinity of the Grenfell Tower fire in London will have been exposed to very high levels of airborne aluminium. Materials scientists will appreciate the role that aluminium, as part of the cladding, played in the rapid and explosive spread of the fire. Inhalation of the inevitable aerosols will have contributed towards the body burden of aluminium in exposed individuals and may, as with Camelford, have predisposed them to neurological problems such as Alzheimer’s disease in the future.

Professor Chris Exley
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