By Patrick Greenfield/Guardian News & Media
More than 100 people have been treated in hospital after a chemical “haze” descended on beach goers on the East Sussex coastline.
Birling Gap, near the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, was evacuated by emergency services after people complained of breathing difficulties and irritation to their eyes and throats about 5pm on Sunday.
A spokesman for Eastbourne district general hospital told the BBC that 133 people had received treatment on Sunday.
Police said an unknown “haze” coming from the sea had left people along the coast from Eastbourne to Birling Gap requiring assistance.
They warned people in the area to keep doors and windows closed.
East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust said: “We became aware of a hazardous cloud moving across from Birling Gap to the Eastbourne area earlier today.
“Six patients initially presented to us with minor symptoms. As at 2230hrs, this number has risen to more than 100 patients being cared for by us at our Eastbourne district general hospital site.
“The patients we are caring for are being decontaminated on site by our trained hospital staff. We are working with East Sussex fire and rescue and being supported on site by Secamb and the police.”
East Sussex fire and rescue service said the “chemical incident” was ongoing.
Sussex police said the incident appeared to have been caused by “an unknown haze coming in from the sea” but the exact source had not yet been established.
The first report came from Birling Gap just before 5pm on Sunday.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) said that “possibly some kind of gaseous fumes” had drifted over the area and a significant number of people on cliff tops had been suffered symptoms including irritation, sore eyes and vomiting.
Fears that people could be trapped on the beach resulted in RNLI lifeboats being launched from Eastbourne and Newhaven.
There was a doctor on board the Eastbourne lifeboat.
A spokesman said: “We have been checking along the shoreline to try and ensure that everyone is safe.”
He said a “plume” had drifted across the area, bringing “some sort of substance” with it which seemed to affect a number of people.
Guardian reporter Ian Cobain, who was walking along the Seven Sisters with his wife Jackie, said: “At midday, we could see a thick mist off the coast, below the cliffs, but assumed it was just a sea mist.
“It was immense. Once past Beachy Head, you could look down over Eastbourne and see it reaching the tip of the pier.
“After doubling back inland, around 4.30 we dropped down into Birling Gap, where immediately our eyes started stinging and streaming. One or two children could be seen washing their eyes.
“As we drove away, the coastguard were pulling up, blue lights flashing. My wife’s eyes were still hurting 30 minutes later, and mine had become sensitive to light.
“But only when we listened to the radio news did we realise it had developed into a major incident.
“When we arrived home a couple of hours later, we washed our clothes and showered. As soon as my wife started washing her hair, her eyes began to hurt once more.”
Rebecca Balldock, 21, from St Albans, was on the beach near Beachy Head with friend Jacob Ward, 21, and boyfriend Scott Smith, 20, when the haze arrived.
“We were at the beach for the day with the drone to take some photos of the cliffs. We went for a swim and when we got out, our eyes were itching. We thought it was because we’d been swimming in the sea, but it kept getting worse and worse,” she said. “When we were climbing up the steps to get off the beach, we were all crying and could hardly see. People were getting up from the beach and rushing for the stairs to get away.
“When we got to the top, some medics took us to wash our eyes and told us there was a chemical incident. But even when we’d washed our eyes, we were crying again.”
Smith first noticed the effects of the haze when his nose became blocked and his eyes started to sting, but said the “mist” was odourless.
“We look like we were all crying,” he said. “When we got to the car, some ambulances and two fire engines arrived. We just sped away as quickly as we could.”
Police believe Sunday’s incident was an isolated one and investigations to find out the cause were continuing.
Sussex Police said: “With another fine day expected for Bank Holiday Monday, thousands of people are expected to flock to the coast once again.”
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