Waterside villagers raise alarm on high rate of MS
Saturday June 7, 2003
You can smell the sea from Colin Dodds' front garden; a salty tang from the deep grey waters of Loch Ryan, less than a mile away over the fields.
Mr Dodds lived on the loch's edge as a boy, spending his summers swimming and paddling and clambering over rocks on the shoreline, watching the ships in Scotland's busiest sea loch.
But these days the 47-year-old will not let his four children in the water, fearful that something might make them sick. Mr Dodds has multiple sclerosis, as does his neighbour, Marion McHarg, 44, and eight other people in the small coastal communities of Leswalt and Kirkcolm.
Scotland has the highest incidence of MS in the world, but Leswalt and Kirkcolm, with a population of less than 600, have 10 times the Scottish average.
And there are growing concerns that the cluster might be linked to a toxic chemical used to protect the hulls of ships that has leached into the waters of Loch Ryan.
Last month the Scottish environment protection agency revealed it had found "unexpectedly high levels" of Tributyltin, or TBT, an agent known to cause neurological problems, in several sections of the loch.
Local health officials have launched an investigation and the issue has been raised in the Scottish parliament.
"Until I was 21, I lived right on the loch's edge," said Mr Dodds, a former musician, who has had to give up work. "We used to play along the cockle shore and everybody swam in the sea. There was a diving platform and in the summer the council used to put a raft out.
"When I was diagnosed with MS in 1989, my 16-month-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumour, so what was happening to me got pushed to the background. But I think there must be something that triggers MS, and when we saw the reports about this agent in the water we wanted to get it investigated."
TBT was first used as a protectant on ships' hulls in the 1960s. Mixed with paint, the chemical inhibits the growth of barnacles, reducing drag in the water, saving energy and money. Within 10 years, however, concerns were growing about its toxicity. In animal and marine life it was found to cause sterility and mutations.
In humans, concentrations of TBT can cause neurological disturbance, vomiting, urine retention and skin burns. Traces have been found in almost all the world's harbours.
Since 1990 there has been a ban on using paint containing TBT on boats under 25 metres in length, and from January of this year the ban was extended to all vessels. By 2008 the International Maritime Organisation wants to see TBT paint either removed from boats or sealed in.
It was warnings from local fishermen that all was not well with the marine life that prompted the protection agency to test the waters of Loch Ryan. Officials now plan a second study of mussels and sediments to see what effect the TBT is having.
Loch Ryan is the main ferry route between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Ms McHarg, a mother of two, worries that the massive vessels plying the route could be churning up the TBT in the water. "With all the fast boats now there are deep vibrations and they may be disturbing something on the seabed and bringing it to the surface," she said.
"I was diagnosed with MS in 1992 and I always thought it was a cluster, because you do get them. But now I think if there are toxins it needs to be looked at. Not just for myself but for everybody. There is a high degree of cancer in this area and of ME."
Derek Cox, director of public health at Dumfries and Galloway health board, said the incidence of MS for the whole region was slightly less than the Scottish average. The area does not even have a neurologist or an MS nurse. But Dr Cox has acknowledged the specific concerns about the disorder in Leswalt and Kirkcolm and has launched an investigation into the cluster.
"These things crop up from time to time in a disease like MS, when frankly we don't know what the cause is," he said.
"There isn't anything in the published literature that would suggest a link with TBT and MS, but we do take these concerns seriously. This might be the first time that we have discovered a link."
The local MSP, Alex Fergusson, has raised the issue at Holyrood and plans to meet the Scottish environment minister to discuss the concerns.
"You are always wary of jumping to conclusions in these matters," he
said. "But there are serious questions here and they need to be answered."
Copyright © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003