‘Suddenly my eyes and throat started burning’: what caused Birling Gap’s toxic cloud?

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'Suddenly my eyes and throat started burning': what caused Birling Gap's toxic cloud?

Last August, holidaymakers in East Sussex fell ill after a poisonous yellow cloud spread across the sky. What was it, and where did it come from?

Sat 14 Apr 2018 04.00 EDT Last modified on Sat 14 Apr 2018 07.35 EDT

Mark Sawyer has worked for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for nearly 30 years, and since 2001 he’s been the full-time coxswain at the Eastbourne lifeboat station. Shortly after 5pm on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend last August, he received a report from the coastguard in Southampton about an incident at a beach seven miles west of his station. “The call we got was that there had either been a fire or an explosion at Birling Gap, and they’d got 50-plus casualties suffering from smoke inhalation or burns.” There was what looked like a layer of thick smoke hanging just above the sea. (105) add

Birling Gap is a popular National Trust spot between Beachy Head and Seaford, a dip in the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters, with a steel staircase leading down to a pebble beach. At low tide there is sand and rockpools; on the cliffs above there is a visitor centre, cafe, car park and coastguard station.

By 6pm that Sunday, the beach had been evacuated and a major incident declared, and Eastbourne district general hospital was carrying out one of the biggest mass decontaminations in NHS history.

The gas or vapour appeared to come rolling along the shore from the east. “We could see this yellowy haze in the air,” a member of the Eastbourne coastguard team says. “It was almost like the film The Fog.” (The fog of John Carpenter’s 1980 horror brings with it the malevolent ghosts of drowned sailors.) Others describe it as clear, or blueish, or sandy. In the frenetic smartphone footage from the scene it looks like a vapour, with a yellow tint, though this might be an effect of the low, late-afternoon sun. It was reported variously as having an odour of chlorine, ammonia and burning plastic. Others say it had no odour, but more of a taste, a chemical astringency in the throat. “We’ve got the water-treatment works near the harbour,” Sawyer says, “but that’s a different smell, I can assure you. The fishermen used to say if the wind’s in the right direction, you can smell your way back to Eastbourne.” A taxi driver who had been nearby at the time says with disarming certainty that it smelled of “potash and corpses”. (183) add

Meanwhile, Sawyer and his RNLI colleagues were approaching Birling Gap from the east, in their lifeboat Diamond Jubilee. It had been an exceptionally busy 24 hours for the station, even by the standards of a hot bank holiday weekend. Just after midnight a car had been driven over Beachy Head, close to Birling Gap, and the RNLI had spent the morning at the scene. Around 11am, having been up much of the night, the crew was called to recover a body that had been spotted by a fishing boat. That afternoon they also undertook one of the RNLI’s lesser-known roles, the scattering of ashes at sea. They were flagging when the call came in about Birling Gap. (117) add

“As we were leaving, the coastguard told us they were getting unconfirmed reports that people were suffering from the effects of a poisonous gas,” Sawyer says, as we sit in his office overlooking Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour. “As we went towards the west we could see this haze, and all of a sudden our eyes started to burn and you could feel the back of your throat burning. We were told in no uncertain terms, ‘Get into the wheelhouse and shut the doors.’”

It took a while for Laura Knight, a drama therapist from Brighton, to realise anything was wrong. She had been on the beach since about 2pm, with her partner and two children, aged six and nine. They were planning a barbecue. “The height of the tide at that time meant the beach was quite thin, and everybody was crammed on the shingle. We had a little swim, everyone was enjoying the sun, and then we started noticing that people were coughing and their eyes were streaming.” It resembled a dense, morning sea mist, she says. “It started slowly to come in, then you lost sight of the cliffs.” (108) add

We could see this haze, and our eyes started to burn. We were told, ‘Get into the wheelhouse and shut the doors’

Later that afternoon, Eastbourne’s Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Lloyd, was at Cork airport in Ireland, waiting for a flight home after a weekend break, when texts started coming in about the haze. “So I make some calls and I learn a ‘poisonous gas cloud’ has materialised at Birling Gap,” he says. “I thought, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ With all the fear around terrorism, you just don’t know. I spoke to someone at the hospital and they said, ‘People are coming in; we don’t know what it is.’ They were scrabbling around in the dark.”

Sussex police, who coordinated the response on land, received the first call about the event at 5.08pm. It came not from a member of the public but from an officer who had been given the information by the RNLI. As the makeup of the cloud was unknown, and reports of symptoms were coming in from a wide area, a forward control point was set up just over a mile from Birling Gap, at the Beachy Head car park. Police, firefighters, ambulance crews and the coastguard convened. Within an hour the police had released a statement advising residents in the area to stay inside, with doors and windows closed. By 5.30pm, the coastguard and RNLI had started evacuating three miles of coastline between Birling Gap and Eastbourne. (126) add

“By this time a lot of people had left the beach,” Knight remembers. “Then we saw the fire brigade arrive with full protective gear on – head to toe in masks, goggles – and everyone else was semi-naked. I started to really cough, I could feel it in my chest. My eyes were burning. Then of course the anxiety gets you. The children started seeing police officers and my son was really concerned about the animals, the sheep. He was saying, ‘What’s going to happen to all the farm animals, Mummy, is someone going to move them?’ Had it hit a busy beach like Brighton, it would have been a major, major incident.” (113) add

At 6pm patients started arriving at Eastbourne hospital, not only from Birling Gap but also from the wider Eastbourne area. They were complaining of streaming eyes, coughing and sore throats; there had also been reports of vomiting. “We work on a 1-2-3 rule,” says chief operating officer Joe Chadwick-Bell. “If the first patient comes along: interesting. If somebody else comes along, you think something’s going on. If a third person comes along, it’s not a coincidence.” As more patients started to arrive, the A&E department declared a major incident.

A report published in January by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) states that the fire service deployed mobile gas detectors calibrated to locate carbon monoxide, oxygen, flammable gas and hydrogen sulphide – chemicals they might expect to encounter in the course of their more regular callouts. Only a very low reading was recorded for flammable gas and a single reading for ammonia at a level too low to be registered by humans. Furthermore, a police tactical adviser specialising in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats was called in to test the air, but again found nothing of concern. No samples were taken by any agency. (109) add

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As dusk fell, a queue had formed at the hospital, as patients were assessed by medics in fluorescent green hazmat suits and processed through a decontamination tent set up outside A&E. At one point more than 80 people were queueing. Patients arrived throughout the night and into the next morning. On the advice of the National Poisons Information Service, 108 were showered, their clothes placed in a plastic bag, and issued with a hospital gown and slippers before proceeding to A&E. Consultant Dr Zeki Atesli was on call that day. “The most common complaint was red eyes,” he says. “The poisons unit mentioned ammonia, but I didn’t smell any gas. We didn’t know what we were dealing with. One patient with acute exacerbation of asthma we took into resus as a precaution; another gentleman in his 70s with a history of angina developed chest pain. One girl collapsed in my arms from the anxiety. But no one was pushing or screaming. English people are very nice. They stay in the queue.” (171) add

“You could taste it,” Chadwick-Bell says. “It was an acidy-type taste.” Hearing that the cloud was moving west, she contacted Eastbourne’s sister hospital at St Leonards-on-Sea in Hastings, 14 miles along the coast, which was put on alert for a major incident. “They had their tent out and they were ready to go.” Although only a few patients turned up in Hastings, the cloud had spread far beyond Birling Gap. Just over half a mile inland, people drinking in the garden of the Tiger Inn in East Dean were advised by police to evacuate, while sore throats and stinging eyes were experienced at a beer festival in Litlington, three miles north-west of Birling Gap. Tony Fitch, who has been fishing in the area for 65 years, spent the day on the beach at Pevensey Bay, nine miles east. He remembers a mist and a sea breeze from the south-east, and while he noticed nothing amiss at the time, the next morning he had a sore throat and sore eyes, symptoms he says have lingered to this day. (177) add

Eastbourne’s new town slogan, launched in the summer of 2016, caused a stir: “Breathe It In” is a brave choice for a town recently ranked as one of Britain’s worst for air quality. Dr Gary Fuller of King’s College London, an expert in air pollution, works with the Sussex Air Quality Partnership, an organisation promoting better air quality in the county. He explains that two fixed monitors registered unusually high spikes of ozone late in the afternoon on 27 August, at around the time of the haze. “The peaks were exceptional,” he says. “This wasn’t just something confined to the beach at Birling Gap; it was covering a far wider area.” A monitor at Lullington Heath, five miles inland, and another in Eastbourne both recorded a rapid rise in the gas on the same afternoon. The abruptness of the peaks was unusual, however, and it’s possible the monitors were responding to another substance: chlorine, for instance, can affect ozone readings. “It didn’t behave as we would expect ozone to behave,” Fuller says. (172) add

While no one appeared to have been made seriously ill, dozens of Stephen Lloyd’s constituents, who hours earlier had been sunbathing, found themselves standing naked in a decontamination shower. No one knows how many more experienced symptoms, but tens of thousands were advised to close their doors and windows and stay inside. Lloyd began pressing the agencies for information.

“At the back of my mind I was thinking: suppose if someone had dropped dead. Surely someone’s going to tell me what it is. Where the hell did it come from? Everyone’s telling me it’s probably a boat cleaning its tanks. But not to worry, they said, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency are checking it out.”

According to a freedom of information request, Public Health England’s working hypothesis, revealed in an email sent to the Cabinet Office at 1am that night, was that “a tanker in the English Channel suffered a leakage of ammonia”, even though only small amounts had been detected at Birling Gap. As well as monitoring fuel emissions, the International Maritime Organization regulates the discharge of effluent and bilge water, chemical-cargo vapours, tank-cleaning chemicals and ballast-water disinfectants. Any of these, released deliberately or by accident, may have been to blame. Sawyer found two reports of a chemical tanker washing out its tanks on the edge of the fishing lanes that day, but the vessel was not identified. The coastguard received a report of a vessel discharging “odd-coloured exhaust” but it, too, has been ruled out as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (142) add

It is criminally wrong that our emergency services don’t have the kit that can store and measure what the hell this was

At the Sovereign Harbour lifeboat station, a live GPS screen shows all the vessels in the Channel. Looking out through the window, I can make out only two or three hazy ghosts of ships on the horizon, but the screen shows dozens – private yachts, trawlers, 30,000-tonne tankers, 150,000-tonne container ships – with their rate of knots and direction, and ports of origin and destination. Little can pass through the Channel unmonitored.

Using techniques developed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, the Met Office was able to trace the course of the plume in the hours before it reached Birling Gap. According to Defra, “The surface air had come over the sea from an easterly direction for the previous nine hours but before that the wind had been… from the west. This strongly suggests an offshore source in the northern part of the English Channel, and effectively rules out France or onshore sources in southern England.” But the timescale, the size of the area from which the substance could have come and the fact that it hadn’t been identified meant the Maritime & Coastguard Agency was unable to narrow down the number of suspect vessels to fewer than 180, many of which were hundreds of miles away by the time the analysis was done. (146) add

In Fuller’s experience, the event is unprecedented in Britain. The only incident that comes close occurred in 1997, when a tanker collision off Ostend, Belgium, sent a cloud of petrol vapour across central England, causing irritation to skin and eyes. But both the substance and its source were quickly identified. “We tend to focus on air pollution in towns,” he adds. “We forget there are big sources out there, just a few miles off the coast.”

Professor John Sodeau, an expert in air pollution and atmospheric chemistry at University College Cork, believes the weather conditions on the day are crucial to understanding what happened. He suggests that sulphurous emissions from ships’ engines reacted with chlorine-containing substances used in the cleaning of ballast or cargo tanks, and the resulting gases and vapours accumulated in the sunny, windless conditions. As he puts it, “Throw the ingredients into a saucepan, bring to the boil, put on a lid and leave to simmer.” Such a “soup” could not only cause symptoms of the kind reported when blown ashore, but could result in the creation of compounds that might smell like burning plastic or chlorine, as well as raising ozone levels. (120) add

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But shipping waste was not the only theory. Two days after the event, the Twitter account of the NERC Earth Observation Data Acquisition and Analysis Service (Neodaas) posted an image recorded by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite at 10.56 on the morning of the cloud. It shows Birling Gap on the coast, and on the water, about five miles to the south-west, a slender plume of what looks like smoke. It is about two miles long and extends in a roughly easterly direction. No ship is visible. The following day, another Twitter user replied: “That is the position of the wreck of ww1 tanker Mira.” (106) add

The SS Mira, a merchant oil tanker sunk by a mine in October 1917, lies 20 metres underwater at almost precisely the point from which the plume appears to originate. Could this have been the source? Ben Taylor of Neodaas, who posted the images, says the plume is not visible in satellite passes from the previous month, and first appears seven hours before people began to experience symptoms at Birling Gap. It was soon observed that the plume was heading in the wrong direction to have hit Birling Gap – east, rather than west with the wind. Taylor now believes it was not gas or vapour but underwater silt, disturbed by the shifting of the 100-year-old wreck and carried on currents. But as he says, “The timing is certainly strange.” (130) add

For his part, Tony Fitch, who was fishing at Pevensey Bay that day, is convinced the cloud came from a French nuclear power station, more than 60 miles across the Channel. He has asked his GP to test him for the effects of radiation. It would not be the first time a substance carried on the air from France affected the region: people in Eastbourne and across southern England remember “Le Pong” of 2013, when an escape of methanethiol, a chemical used to add a warning odour to domestic gas, floated over from a chemical works in Rouen, 100 miles away. (101) add

The diversity of public theories about the origin of the substance – chlorine gas leaking from a first world war wreck; an accident at an incinerator; some creation of a nearby offshore windfarm; a top-secret military psyop – is inevitable, given that the substance remains officially unidentified eight months later. It was for this reason, too, that the Maritime & Coastguard Agency aborted its investigation in late September.

“They told me all the way through,” says Stephen Lloyd MP, “‘Don’t worry, we’ve identified the ships that were in the area, but we have to wait till they port before we check it out.’ But then six weeks later I hear: ‘No, we’re not doing it, there’s no point, because we don’t know what it is.’ It is criminally wrong that this country and our emergency services don’t have the kit that can store, assess and measure what the hell this was.”

Lloyd is not alone in pressing for more information. Green party MEP Keith Taylor has asked Defra whether the incident was reported to the European Commission. The Seveso directive states a report must be made by an EU member country if more than 500 people are “evacuated or confined” for over two hours as a result of an accident involving a dangerous substance. He believes the event meets these criteria, but the commission can find no record of such a report being made, and Defra has not responded to requests for clarification. “It is hard to escape the feeling that the government has consistently shrugged its shoulders in response to this incident,” Taylor says. (114) add

He also highlights a second incident, four miles along the coast exactly two months later. On the night of 27 October, a stench of burning plastic was reported by residents of Seaford, along with burning eyes and nausea. Although the council attributed the odour to nearby agricultural activity, residents wondered if there was a connection to the more serious event that summer.

Defra’s scientific report into the incident, released in January, concludes that, while a ship remains the most likely culprit, “unless further information is obtained, it may never be possible to identify the precise source of the release”.

It’s really concerning… I don’t know if there’s something in my body, and nobody else knows either

“If one old person or one baby had died because of this gas,” Lloyd says, “and no one knew what it was, my God, there would have been resignations of chief executives and secretaries of state.”

In December, Defra announced a review of the emergency response which, among other issues, will investigate “the practicalities of taking, storing and analysing gas samples in future events of this kind”. But the experts have their doubts. “You do not just collect the air in a bell jar and take it home for later analysis,” says air pollution specialist John Sodeau. “Samples have to be collected on site and analysed in real time. The levels may be parts per trillion or billion and the chemical radicals involved may last for only seconds.”

Defra’s review is ongoing. It has no plans to make its findings public. For Eastbourne district general hospital, the event was a valuable learning exercise. Dr Atesli has been asked to speak about it at medical conferences. “You don’t expect something like this in Eastbourne,” he says. “But it can happen.”

Laura Knight, whose cough lasted for two weeks, still hopes for answers. “It’s really concerning,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s something in my body, and nobody else knows either.”

On my last visit, Birling Gap was busy with visitors enjoying the midwinter sun. The only haze was from the waves crashing on the chalk foreshore, the only masks worn by a few Japanese tourists making their way across the car park. On the horizon, the world’s ships plied back and forth.

• William Atkins’ The Immeasurable World: Journeys In Desert Places will be published in June.

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