The Shetland Oil Disaster: Health study will check effects of spill on islanders: Breathing masks offered to workers as fish industry counts the cost

A HEALTH study to find out whether oil fumes and chemical dispersants have any harmful effects on Shetlanders was announced yesterday.

Islanders who have to work outside in the area near the wreck of the Braer were offered breathing masks by the island's council. Last night, the tanker was expected to undergo its worst pounding since it hit the rocks, with winds of up to 100mph and waves of more than 33ft (10m).

Islanders who live within two miles of the wrecked tanker will be studied for long-term health effects resulting from breathing air polluted by oil and chemicals. Dr Derek Cox, director of public health on the island, said yesterday that he believed there was no long-term risk to health.

However, he said that in high concentrations, dispersant chemicals can be toxic to the liver and oil droplets in sufficient concentration can exacerbate lung disease and asthma in the short term. The study will include tests of liver, kidney and lung function as well as blood and urine tests. A few islanders have been to their GPs complaining of minor symptoms such as sore throats and headache.

The aim of the study will be to compare the health of 600 people who live near the wreck with a random sample of people from the north of the island, which has not been affected by the oil.

The Department of Transport's Marine Pollution Control Unit has acknowledged that some dispersant may have drifted outside the target area last Wednesday. Since then the spraying method has been refined and modified.

Malcolm Green, chief executive of the Shetland Islands Council, said: 'The refinements include measures to prevent residual dispersant in the system being discharged during the climb-out, and in addition the crew have undertaken to fly at 15ft (4.6m) which is half the normal operation height. The spray will be switched on as late as possible and switched off immediately on reaching the edge of the oil to be treated, following which the aircraft will remain at low level before turning away out to sea.'

David Bedborough, land co-ordinator of the Marine Pollution Unit, said that under these conditions dispersant would all find its way into the sea. A helpline, operated by health visitors, is being set up to explain to worried islanders that health risks are believed to be minimal. Daily tests on the water supply have not found any pollution from hydrocarbons.

The oil slicks and sheen appear to be being gradually dispersed by the very high seas and winds. But one dead otter killed by oil contamination has been washed up 20 miles north of the wreck. The distance has worried conservation organisations monitoring wildlife.

Six seals are now known to have been killed by oil and two seals are now being treated on the islands. The number of dead birds has reached 612, but yesterday the collectors were asked to stop patrolling the beaches because of the near-hurricane conditions.

The salvage team moved 10 tons of equipment plus a bulldozer to the hillside overlooking the wreck, but the winds hampered any attempt to board the Braer and begin pumping off oil.

Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, and John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, will make statements in the Commons today, giving details of the progress of the inquiry and the extent of compensation.

Labour MPs will be pressing ministers to authorise government compensation for those islanders, particularly fish farmers, whose livelihoods may have been destroyed by the spillage.

An emergency compensation fund of pounds 200,000 has been set up for Shetland islanders by the Oslo- based Skuld protection and indemnity club, to which the owners of Braer belong. The Shetland Islands Council, which negotiated the fund, said it was for those victims of the spill likely to face financial hardship in the next few weeks. The claimants will probably be farmers of fish and livestock. Protection and indemnity clubs are groups of ship owners that unite to insure themselves against large claims arising from accidents.

One firm of lawyers, Glasgow- based Levy and McRae, has placed a full-page advertisement in the latest issue of the Shetland Times, inviting islanders to use it to pursue claims for damages and compensation.