Falklands face ozone hole risk

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Falkland Islanders and British servicemen have been officially told to take precautions against getting skin cancer as the Antarctic ozone hole has spread to cover the islands.

Radiation alerts have been issued with the local weather forecasts as the protective ozone layer has reached record lows over inhabited land and special monitoring equipment is about to be shipped out from Britain. The Falklands and Tierra del Fuego have already suffered four days under the hole, and the worst may yet be to come.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported late last week that the ozone layer had been "nearly completely annihilated" over Antarctica, and the hole - which has opened up faster this year than ever before, now covers an area twice as big as Europe from the Urals to the Atlantic, and is as deep as Mount Everest is tall - may yet grow further.

The hole has appeared each southern spring since 1979 as man-made chemicals such as chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) react with sunlight to destroy the ozone which screens out harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The radiation causes skin cancer and cataracts and suppresses the immune system.

The Falklands have been particularly exposed this year because the ozone hole changed shape last month, becoming elliptical rather than circular. As a result, it stretched farther north than ever before, passing over the islands and the tip of South America - home to more than 100,000 people - on 7-8 and 17-18 September. It has now resumed its more normal shape, roughly covering the Antarctic continent, but scientists say it may well threaten the inhabited areas again later this year.

Dr Roger Diggle, Chief Medical Officer for the Falklands, told the Independent on Sunday yesterday: "We are taking this very seriously. Ozone warnings are issued with the daily weather forecasts and people are told to wear Factor 20 suncream, wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved clothes."

He said he was making final arrangements this week for the siting of a special ultraviolet radiation-monitoring station which is about to be shipped out to the islands by Britain's National Radiological Protection Board, which will give the Falklanders a clearer idea of the dangers they are facing. But he added: "We are stuck with the problem. Our 2,000 people contribute very little to the pollution that causes the ozone hole, but we are its victims."

Dr Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey, which originally discovered the hole, says that more people have been exposed to low levels of ozone this year than ever.

Dr Rumen Bojkov, special adviser to the WNO Secretary-General on ozone and environmental issues, said that the pollutants remained in the atmosphere for so long that even if every country observed the treaties that have been agreed to phase them out, big ozone holes would remain a danger for at least another 25 years.