“This seems to have been caused by an unknown haze coming in from the sea but the source has not yet been established. However, weather models suggest that an onshore source in northern France is very unlikely.”
That’s a relief … sort of. France is not to blame, but British media reports that experts still have no idea what caused a mysterious cloud of toxic gas that engulfed the beaches at Beachy Head and Birling Gap in East Sussex on Sunday afternoon, sending hundreds of people to the hospital for treatment of burning eyes, sore throats, vomiting and breathing problems.
“My eyeballs, my eyeballs.”
Mirror Online reports the reaction of Rebecca Baldock as the strange cloud blew in over Beachy Head at about 5 pm on August 27, a crowded holiday-weekend Sunday at the beach (the day before Bank Holiday Monday). Baldock says she and her friends were immediately covering their eyes from the scary irritation caused by the fog. According to initial reports, people living as far as 15 miles from the beach were also suffering aftereffects from something that smelled like chlorine.
Chlorine! The symptoms are the same and, despite the war being over for 100 years, some people immediately suspected a long-lost gas canister may have washed ashore and cracked open. There are stories of at least one shipwreck in the waters near Beachy Head that might contain gas canisters, but officials found no evidence pointing to this as the cause. Emergency crews also quickly determined that it wasn’t a terrorist attack.
Could the mysterious mist have a natural cause? So-called harmful algal blooms get their name because the overabundance of algae or cyanobacteria can be caused by chemical spills and release harmful gases. Experts checking the water found no evidence of an algal cause. Weather officials saw signs of a temperature inversion that could have been responsible for trapping the gases over the area but not for the obnoxious odors themselves.
Eliminating these causes of the toxic gas is small consolation to those who were taken to the hospital wheezing and puking or were told to stay indoors until further notice by rescue workers and emergency personnel in hazmat suits.
Moving to the guessing phase, one potential source of the gas is a ship in the Channel dumping wastes, performing an illegal chemical cleaning or worse. This intentional probability is actually the scariest, since it implies that, if ships are willing to dump harmful substances so near to shore in the English Channel, image how much is likely to be going on in the vast and unwatched expanses of the oceans.
While local officials say what they always say – this was an “isolated incident and is not expected to recur” – Henry Prout of Newhaven RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) had this warning:
“Whatever the cause it is going to be extremely difficult to identify the source.”
As of this writing, he’s right. Will the cause of the Beachy Head mist be determined before it rolls in again?