It’s July 2019 and you’ve decided to take a summer vacation on France’s northwest coastline. But when you arrive at one of the beaches, you notice a strange-looking green substance accumulating on the shore, which also gives off a pungent odour. As it turns out, this bizarre sight is incredibly dangerous, and you’re warned to stay away for your own safety.
Like countless other coastal regions across the world, Brittany, France, is home to some lovely beaches. Unfortunately, a number of those picturesque locations were badly affected by the aforementioned substance in the summer of 2019. However, this wasn’t the first time that the harmful green sludge had made it to the shore.
Indeed, it’s believed that the slimy substance started to cause problems in France about 50 years ago. During that period, a connection was made between its appearance and the deaths of animals such as horses and wild boars. The concerns didn’t end there, though, as we’re about to find out.
As the green sludge continued to accumulate on several Brittany beaches in 2019, two families suffered tragic losses. Sadly, a young man and an older gentleman both died within days of each other over that summer, with the substance being blamed. Following that, a number of individuals then revealed the dangers you’d face visiting those locations.
When the summer months roll around, many of us feel the urge to visit our local beaches, where we can soak up the sun. The statistics certainly back that up, with one state in particular boasting some impressive numbers. Indeed, New York has seen a swell of people head to the seaside in the last few years.
To give you some idea of the numbers, New York’s Parks Department claimed that nearly 16 million individuals visited beaches in 2016. Those figures were then surpassed in 2018, as more people took to the sand. Away from America, though, there are a lot of other popular spots on the seafront.
As we suggested earlier, Brittany is one such location. This French region is home to several cities, such as Rennes and Nantes, but it’s best known for the beaches that are dotted around its coastline. In fact, the sandy areas are some of the biggest draws for foreign visitors.
From Morlaix Bay to Saint-Malo, these places boast beautiful shorelines. However, in the last few decades, a certain type of algae has been attributed to some worrying reports. As we mentioned before, several animals were said to have died back in the 1970s after coming into contact with the green substance.
Following that, a physician in Brittany made their concerns public when a man died in 1989. The individual in question had gone for a run on a beach in Saint-Michel-en-Grève, one of the region’s communities. Unfortunately he didn’t make it back home, as his body was soon discovered alongside a mass of what was described in contemporaneous reports as seaweed.
A post mortem examination was subsequently performed on the runner’s body, yet the findings didn’t get out to the public. Given the circumstances of his death, the aforementioned Lannion-based medic came forward to make more people aware of what he believed had happened. Incredibly, though, that didn’t mark the end of the problems, as we’re about to discover.
For you see, some 20 years on from the jogger’s passing, two more high-profile incidents came to light in 2009. One of them involved a vet, who was out with his horse on a Brittany beach. The pair eventually came across a large pile of algae, which led to a terrifying moment.
The vet passed out after getting too close to the slimy green sludge, while his horse sadly died at the scene. Thankfully for the former, someone was able to pull him away from the area before things got even worse. But the same couldn’t be said for another man that year.
Indeed, Thierry Morfoisse was one of the workers charged with moving the green sludge off a beach in 2009. To get it away from the shoreline, it was placed on a truck for transportation. Morfoisse operated one such vehicle, and it led to a truly tragic outcome for his family.
As Morfoisse drove off with the algae in the truck, he subsequently passed away behind the wheel. In the end, his passing was deemed as a “workplace accident” with links to the substance in 2018, following a lengthy judicial case. Yet this wouldn’t be the last death caused by the plant.
In a similar case to the jogger back in 1989, a man named Jean-René Auffray went out for a run in 2016. He was 50 years old at the time, and wanted to get himself ready for a testing race. So Auffray decided to stretch his legs with his pet dog in Hillion, another of Brittany’s local communities.
Some time after Auffray left his house, the dog came back without him, prompting his family to begin hunting for him. As a result, his body was eventually discovered among the algae on a nearby beach. It’s believed that the 50-year-old died in the same stretch of land where the bodies of more than 30 wild boar had been uncovered in 2011.
Then, about three years on from Auffray’s untimely passing, two more people died in July 2019. The first of those was a retired man, who lost his life in Brittany’s Douarnenez Bay. It’s been reported that he had a heart attack, just a few days before a teenager suffered the very same fate.
In that instance the 18-year-old, who worked as an oyster farmer, was found in Morlaix Bay, leading to a big decision. With the algae showing no signs of dispersing, the local authorities looked to keep both residents and tourists safe. So they opted to shut down six of Brittany’s beaches.
Keeping all that information in mind, you might be somewhat concerned about the overall safety of algae. After all, when you visit beaches in your local area, you could well spot the green mass washing up on shore. However, in the vast majority of cases, it’s completely harmless to humans.
To explain more, the Live Science website delved into the intricacies of algae. Its post read, “Algae are a diverse group of aquatic organisms that have the ability to conduct photosynthesis. Certain algae are familiar to most people. For instance, seaweeds (such as kelp or phytoplankton), pond scum or the algal blooms in lakes.”
The post added, “However, there exists a vast and varied world of algae that are not only helpful to us, but are critical to our existence.” While that might sound a touch overstated at first, the statement is fairly accurate. Author Ruth Kassinger went on to back it up in one of her books from 2019.
Titled Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us, Kassinger’s publication revealed that the organisms actually create oxygen. In fact, she also claimed that over half of our planetary supply of the vital gas stems from the green plants. Due to that, we’d struggle to breathe if algae just disappeared.
As for the algae that washed up in Brittany, those organisms didn’t boast the same helpful properties. For you see, when that green mass reached the shore, it was rotting. On top of that, a number of environmentalists believe that local farming could be blamed for the quantity that keeps appearing too.
Alongside the beaches, Brittany is known for its dairy, pig and poultry farming as well. The waste from that process, which contains a chemical compound called nitrates, is released into the water supply, eventually reaching the ocean. As a result of that, the algae are said to bloom from that material.
Once the algae die, they start to decompose; this process can lead to a build-up of a dangerous gas, hydrogen sulfide. The substance is contained within the rotting sludge, and it’s released when something disturbs it. Given how toxic the gas can be, it has the potential to kill you if you simply breathe it in.
To give you a better idea of just how bad things had become by 2019, U.K. newspaper The Guardian interviewed one of Brittany’s residents. André Ollivro lived in Saint-Brieuc, where mounds of dead algae had piled up on the beach. Due to that, and the horrific smell that sprung from the vegetation, he slipped a gas mask on while talking to the publication.
“You can’t be too careful,” Ollivro told the paper in September 2019. “When I was 16, I used to bring a boat here with my uncle. In those days, it was all about natural beauty and you didn’t see seaweed piled up. It’s a shame this place has come to be associated with death.”
On that note, Ollivro offered up a grave warning when talking about the dangers of hydrogen sulfide to The Guardian. He claimed, “It could kill you in seconds.” Following the two tragedies in Brittany that summer, a man named Jean Hascoet was of the opinion that the gas had caused those deaths.
In addition to that, Hascoet also believed that local officials had to take a closer look at other aquatic fatalities going forward. “There are 600 deaths per year related to swimming,” he told TV news network CNN in July 2019. “So we don’t say that every time it’s because of algae, but we’re angry because it’s a hidden phenomenon.”
Hascoet added, “We ask that every time someone dies, we need an investigation.” Meanwhile, someone from the French National Center for Scientific Research made an interesting point on this subject. As we mentioned earlier, environmentalists thought that Brittany’s farming could be attributed to the continued algae growth in the region.
And those views were somewhat backed up by a microbiology expert named Anniet Laverman, who sat down to talk with CNN. She revealed that algae often appear to bloom close to areas of intensive agriculture. Alongside that, the researcher highlighted that “waste” was another potential factor in the organisms’ growth too.
Laverman explained, “Algae when they are alive, they are plants and they do not pose a problem. But when they are dead, they degrade. People can smell the smell of [hydrogen sulfide] but are not aware that it’s a very toxic gas smell.” Unfortunately for the citizens of Brittany, it was an odour with which many became all too familiar.
In an attempt to clear the beaches of the dangerous algae, mounds of the vegetation were thrown into trucks. After that, the vehicles then traveled to a facility that would get rid of the dead plants. To do that, the people there would essentially “dry” them out before throwing them away.
However, thanks to the sheer amount of algae that had been taken to the facility, the smell proved too much. The odour, which is said to resemble that of rotten eggs, eventually caused the building to shut down for a short period. Indeed, the scent couldn’t be contained, with locals bemoaning the disgusting smell.
While officials tried to clear Brittany’s shorelines, the family of Auffray, who we touched upon earlier, came forward. Given the chaos that continued to erupt in the years after the runner’s death, they opted to file a lawsuit against the French region. Much like Hascoet, they believed that more of an effort needed to be made regarding this issue.
François Lafforgue, who worked as the Auffrays’ legal counsel, told The Guardian in September 2019, “The family don’t want this to happen to anyone else again. For years, the state has talked about measures to stop this algae spreading, yet year after year we see the situation getting worse, or not changing.”
Lafforgue added, “So there’s clearly a gap between the state’s declarations and reality.” And the accusations didn’t stop there, as we’re about to discover. Writer Inès Léraud penned an investigative graphic novel that covered this developing tale, titled Green Algae: The Untold Story. She too went on to share her thoughts with the British paper.
Léraud told the publication, “There has been a wall of silence for several decades. Around 20 people die on the coast each year, often swept away with tides or currents. But the question is, could some of those people have fainted from toxic gas from seaweed before being swept out? The state has not shed full light on all these issues.”
With that in mind, one of Brittany’s environmental officials came forward to defend the region. Thierry Burlot claimed that the authorities had implemented measures to cut down on the nitrates in farming. As a result of those moves, he revealed that roughly 11,000 tons of algae was appearing on the beaches, compared to 33,000 tons over a decade ago.
Despite those figures, though, a scientist named Sylvain Ballu doesn’t want Brittany’s efforts to stop there. He informed The Guardian, “Pollution is often invisible to the naked eye, particularly if it’s nitrates or pesticides. This green algae has made invisible pollution extremely visible, extremely smelly and dangerous. It has brought the issue to the surface.”