The discovery of mysterious blue balls washed up along Dublin’s coastline has prompted questions over where they came from and whether they pose any threat.
The small objects – about 25mm in diameter – appear to be made of a rubber-like substance and are thought to be taprogge balls used to clean water-cooling systems in various heavy industry plants, including power stations.
Similar ones were discovered on beaches in the UK nearly a decade ago and were traced back to the Hartlepool nuclear plant, although the source of those discovered in Dublin is not yet known.
North Dublin resident Brian Bolger says he has collected large amounts of the balls from Dollymount Strand on Bull Island over the years but has noticed more of them appearing in recent times. He has raised the issue with Dublin City Council and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“We go walking regularly on Dollymount. Every so often we do a little [rubbish] pick up and we were noticing these balls,” he said.
“At first they were all blue [they later discovered orange versions] and we thought they were golf ball innards because there are two courses on the island.”
Mr Bolger’s research led him to a news report from the UK in 2013, which appear to show the same balls washed up along the north Yorkshire coast.
Channel 4 reported that Hartlepool nuclear power station took responsibility, confirming the balls were used as part of the cleaning process for seawater in its cooling systems.
A spokesperson told the programme that, while most are caught, some of the non-radioactive balls escape into the sea and can wash up on beaches.
The EPA in Ireland said it was not aware of any balls being washed up but that the pictures appeared to be of tabrogge balls.
“[These] can be used in the cooling systems of a number of heavy industries, including power stations,” a spokeswoman said. “As they are typically used in the water pipes at these facilities, there is no risk of any radioactive contamination.”
A spokesman for Dublin City Council said it was aware of the issue and was looking into it.
Local Green Party councillor Donna Cooney said that according to a council official the objects had been discovered in previous years, tested and found to be harmless. Their origin, however, remains a mystery.
“To see these washed up, we have to find out where they are coming from,” she said.
Coastwatch Europe's Ireland-based international co-ordinator Karin Dubsky said she recalled the same or similar balls being discovered in Dublin a number of years ago.
“Any time that you have something that’s likely to come from an industrial source you can’t judge by what you did the last time. Every local authority and the EPA have a Geiger counter and so you would say, why not just put it past the Geiger counter?” she said, adding that an investigation into the source and constitution of the balls was now necessary.
Whether or not they pose any threat, or are biodegradable, the balls have arrived on an extremely sensitive part of Ireland.
Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland described Bull Island as the most protected piece of land in the country – it is a national nature reserve with several conservation designations and is crucial for several species of migratory birds.