[UK] A toxic haze that left more than 200 beachgoers needing hospital treatment could have been caused by harmful algae, experts say.
As families enjoyed a day out at Birling Gap, East Sussex, the coast was shrouded in a strange mist that left many with stinging eyes, while others struggled to breathe and were sick.
The beach, near beauty spot Beachy Head, was evacuated on Sunday amid initial fears it was a terror plot.
Yesterday experts said the mist may have come from a leaked chemical container in the sea or a bloom of algae.
Chrissie Dann, whose husband Steve is a coastguard at Eastbourne, said: ‘People were saying it might be a terrorist attack so people were panicking and running to get off the beach.
‘It was like a stampede. It came over really quickly.
‘Everyone on the beach was really frightened as all of a sudden their eyes started stinging, people couldn’t breathe properly and their throats were hurting… it was really eerie.’ The substance was said to smell like chlorine.
Henry Prout, of the RNLI at nearby Newhaven, said: ‘The gas could have come from a container dropped at sea many, many years ago whose seal has finally broken or it could have come from a vessel doing a chemical clean, which is prohibited in maritime law.’
But a theory that the cloud could have floated to Britain from France was dismissed by police yesterday due to the weather and wind direction.
Dr Simon Boxall, a senior lecturer in oceanography at Southampton University, said that he believed the cloud was likely to have been caused by a toxic ‘algal bloom’ in the sea.
He said: ‘We get at this time of year, if the conditions are right, a thing called a harmful algal bloom. You have the right conditions to provide lots of food for harmful algal blooms and then a couple of days of really sunny warm weather – perfect conditions for harmful algal blooms to bloom.
‘They can also release chemicals into the water which then go up as aerosols. Its effects tend to be stinging eyes, restrictive problems… The evidence is, once you get away from it, you recover pretty much immediately.
‘The thing that doesn’t fit in is that a lot of these toxins have no smell and several people apparently described smelling chlorine.’
However, he said there was a ‘50-50 chance’ that the cloud had been caused by a chemical spill from a ship or on land.
More than 200 people were treated at Eastbourne District General Hospital, which declared a major incident on Sunday night. Patients were decontaminated by medics wearing protective suits. They were told to place their clothing in a decontaminating liquid before being hosed down – with some needing oxygen to help them breathe.
Katerina Day, 40, who lives in nearby East Dean, said she had gone to hospital after spending the afternoon in her garden when police told villagers to close their windows and stay inside.
She said: ‘A couple of hours before, my eyes were stinging really bad then we were watching the news and saw it could be hazardous. It takes 15 minutes to get there, in that time my breathing deteriorated, it was really strange, this pain in my chest.
‘By the time I got there I was struggling to breathe.’ Some posted on social media about their ordeal. On Twitter, Kyle Crickmore said: ‘Some sort of chemical incident at Birling Gap, eyes are streaming and there’s a strong smell of chlorine in the air.’
Yesterday Sussex Police said: ‘A gas cloud that affected hundreds of people along the coast of East Sussex on Sunday afternoon appears to have dissipated and advice to keep windows and doors closed has now been withdrawn.
‘Neither the gas nor its source have been established, but agencies are continuing to investigate and have not ruled out either onshore or offshore locations, although it does appear that it did sweep in from the sea driven by onshore breezes.’