Wed, Dec 22, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Junk, bombs and anthrax: just your average UK jetsam

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

The seas and beaches around the British Isles are polluted with a cocktail of man-made detritus, including anti-tank missiles, phials of anthrax vaccine, drums of toxic chemicals and even parts of Ministry of Defense missile systems, according to one of the most authoritative reports on the marine environment.

More than 2,700 "suspect items," often left over from military exercises, dumped illegally or lost after shipping accidents, were reported in the government-funded investigation aimed at quantifying the amount of potentially dangerous items washed up on the coastline each year. The haul included 1,680 army munitions or flares, a fourfold increase compared with the last similar inquiry in 1993.

Part of a Sea Cat missile was one of the discoveries.

The report, compiled by Trevor Dixon, scientific officer for the Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea, offers the only glimpse into potential dangers posed by material jettisoned off Britain's 16,000km of coastline.

The catalogue of incidents includes fishing vessels which received government compensation after discarded military explosives were snared in their nets, and sand dredgers which suffered "significant" damage after finding World War II mines.

Those injured during the past 10 years included surfers off the west of Scotland who were burnt after discarded flares ignited. A West Country beachcomber collapsed after inspecting a drum of chemicals on a southwest England beach.

One of the most disturbing cases involved almost 500 phials of anthrax vaccine that had drifted into a south coast bay.

Investigations suggested that sailors on a British warship had hurled the vaccine overboard. Safety alerts were issued after people stumbled across anti-tank mines on two popular beaches in county Norfolk, eastern England. Flammable liquids had to be cleared from a Guernsey island beach last summer.

"It is quite alarming when we get reports of materials self-igniting on beaches," Dixon said. "These findings, though, would be nothing compared to the threat of terrorism -- the effect, for example, of a deliberate attack on a chemical tanker in a busy fishing ground could prove disastrous, an attack for which there is no precedent."

Over the past decade the legacy of drug-taking on beaches has come to the fore. Almost 180 used syringes and needles were collected in the 12-month investigation by Dixon, with two-thirds of coastal local authorities admitting they are aware of discarded needles on their beaches.

Toxic chemicals pose another problem. Emergency services were notified after 23 liters of an industrial chemical were discovered on a popular coastal strip of South Wales in 2002. Overall, the proportion of "high danger" substances has steadily increased from just over half to 82 percent of all packaged "dangerous goods" found on beaches over the course of the past decade.

Yet the chief threat remains the legacy of World War II. Floating mines and torpedoes are routinely trawled up by fishermen off the entire coastline. Analysis of Royal Navy statistics show that the number of mortar projectiles, hand grenades and shells found continues to increase. So, too, does their threat: the older a shell or bomb, the more unstable and volatile it is.

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