The mysterious ‘toxic haze’ that left 150 hospitalised may have been linked to the ozone

Bank holiday weekend usually passes by in a haze, but for the sun worshippers on East Sussex’s Birling Gap this phenomenon came about rather too literally. Holidaymakers found themselves shrouded in a gaseous cloud that induced symptoms including coughing, irritated eyes and throat, and even vomiting. The mysterious incident, which has been resolved but not solved, left up to 150 people seeking treatment in hospital.

The mysterious 'toxic haze' that left 150 hospitalised may have been linked to the ozone

Reports of a “chemical haze” that was causing breathing problems and various other debilitating symptoms starting circulating at around 5pm on Sunday – one of the hottest days of the year. Local residents soon took to Twitter to voice concerns about the onset of the haze, as emergency services warned people to avoid the area.

Meanwhile, decontamination units were set up to treat those affected by the toxic haze, and reports surfaced of health professionals “fully suiting up” in order to pre-empt any worst case scenarios. Despite damage control measures being enacted, the haze did indeed lift after a matter of hours, and the public were permitted to return to the beach.

Whilst the mystery of the elusive chemical gas hasn’t been solved, speculation concerning its origin abounded. Suggestions ranged from an ominous sounding “chemical incident” involving chlorine gas (since ruled out), to a gas leak emanating from French industrial plants across the English Channel. Local businesses were keen to vindicate themselves: “All our sites in the area are constantly monitored and everything is working normally,” came the response from a local water works spokesperson, talking to The Guardian.

One feasible explanation for the onset of the haze is the proliferation of ozone (O3) in the atmosphere. Whilst the presence of ozone in the atmosphere is normally hailed as a good thing (“the hole”, in turn, being associated with sunburn and skin cancer and a host of nasty ailments), this rule of thumb only applies in the stratosphere – the upper atmosphere. Once ozone traverses the troposphere – the lower atmosphere – which extends from the ground to about six miles up, it becomes damaging to the air we breathe; its beneficial qualities wane, and it makes up a harmful and predominant component of smog.

Thus far, however, there have been no concrete answers. The police and coastguards are cooperating on a joint investigation into the root cause of the ordeal. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency told The Guardian that it would be an long and arduous process to unearth what the smog actually comprised, although teams would likely start by investigating vessels in the affected area. “That,” she warned, “can take quite a long time to follow up with.”

For now, the incident has the makings of an Arthur Conan Doyle work – all British seaside and dumbfounded officials – with the *likely* culpability of climate change heralding a foreboding 21st century makeover.

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