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Public health response to an incident of secondary chemical contamination at a beach in the United Kingdom


OBJECTIVES To gather enough data from a large scale investigation involving two health authorities, to assess the possible concentrations and routes of exposure and the consequent health implications.To use the data to decide whether a polluted beach should remain open to the public. In Spring 1997, a chemical incident came to light at a beach on the south coast of England when a local resident reported a sulphurous smell, visible signs of oil, and reduced numbers of fishing bait. The beach was situated adjacent to a former gasworks site and was accessible to the public. The incident was reported to the local authority and was initially investigated by the Environment Agency and the local authority. An Environment Agency report confirmed contamination of the beach with cyanide, ammonia, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) with associated potential health risks. The incident was then referred to the local health authorities for investigation.

METHODS The investigation was carried out in four stages: comprehensive sampling and analysis to identify the extent of contamination, followed by an assessment of risk to health; establishment of a long term monitoring programme to identify any changes in contaminant concentrations; investigation of the effects of the contamination on shellfish; and review of the routine monitoring data and current sampling strategy.

RESULTS The initial investigation confirmed that the beach was contaminated, with the most likely source being the adjacent former gasworks site. The level of contamination was not found to be likely to pose a hazard to users of the beach. However, subsequent investigation of shellfish in the area led to warning signs being erected on the beach to prevent human consumption of mussels contaminated with PAHs.

CONCLUSIONS Several lessons can be learnt from this investigation, which can be applied to incident management more generally: the importance of collaboration and coordination; the need for early involvement of the health authority; and the importance of carrying out appropriate sampling and analysis as soon as possible, to assess the risk to health and the environment.

  • public health
  • water pollutants
  • chemical
  • hydrocarbons
  • cyanides

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