Life Under The Ozone Hole

Walter Ulloa had no idea he lived in the Twilight Zone. He was too busy herding cattle on the southernmost spit of land in South America to have heard about the blind salmon caught in Tierra del Fuego. Or the pack of rabbits so myopic that hunters plucked them up by their ears. Or the thousands of sheep blinded by temporary cataracts. None of that much mattered--until unusual things started happening to Ulloa himself. After long days on an upper pasture, the 28-year-old ranch hand found that his arms burned "like boiling water," he said. His eyes, swollen and irritated, clouded over; his left one is now completely blind. Another ranch hand was also affected: focusing on objects now makes him weep uncontrollably.

Examining the symptoms, Chilean doctors said the two men were probably hit by excessive ultraviolet-B radiation. They suggested UV-resistant sunglasses. "I can't afford glasses," says Ulloa, gazing over the grassy tundra. "Besides, they would look strange out here." Strange, indeed. But strange things are becoming commonplace around the Chilean port of Punta Arenas, the largest town (population: 115,000) to be located on the cusp of an ozone hole. Every year from late August to early December, the hole over Antarctica expands northward. Its outer reaches now cover the tip of South America, exposing flora, fauna and people like Ulloa to increased doses of ultraviolet radiation. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently found that the ozone hole has grown much faster than had been anticipated; it is now four times larger than the United States. Several Chilean scientists estimate that levels of the carcinogenic ultraviolet-B radiation jumped more than 1,000 percent in Punta Arenas on peak days last year. "This has never happened to a human population at any time in history," says Jaime Abarca, the region's lone dermatologist. "It's as if Martians had landed."

Residents lose no time in telling visitors about the otherworldly phenomena-from wilder-than-normal climatic gyrations shifting reproductive patterns in birds, wild llamas and even cabbage. Nursery owner Ana Maria Schultz shows off two Veronica plants, one lush and green after a year in a green-house, the other yellow and sickly after being burned, she says, by radiation. Skipper Robert Mahler says his yacht's dacron sails rate nine now become brittle and deterio years before their 10-year guarantee is up. Veterinarian Vladimir Mazlov claims that a small but increasing number of the region's 2.4 million sheep are being struck by temporary blindness. But nothing is more troubling than the possible effects of UV-B radiation on human beings: skin cancer, cataracts, even a weakened immune system. "It's like AIDS from the sky," says Bedrich Magas, an electrical engineer who has waged an aggressive campaign to attract public interest-and research funds. "We get one dose every spring."

Skeptics say Magas is acting less like Galileo than Chicken Little. To date, very little direct evidence exists of a link between the freak occurrences in southern Chile and excess UV radiation, There are only sparse data-and spirited debateabout the intensity of UV rays in Punta Arenas. Some scientists claim that sun worshipers in Miami and Acapulco are bombarded by more ultraviolet residents of southern Chile, partly because the subarctic climate and oblique sunlight give residents little incentive to put on string bikinis. The blinded sheep, according to some farmers and veterinarians, may simply have contracted a virus unrelated to UV radiation. And the bug-eyed bunnies? They may have been the victims of a virus first spread 20 years ago to thin out an overpopulation of rabbits that threatened ranching. "Blindness," Magas concedes, "is one of the dark spots of radiation research."

But not the only one. So far, most studies have looked at the effects of radiation on plankton and other spineless creatures that form the basis of the marine food chain, not on human beings. In Punta Arenas, a living laboratory for human reactions to radiation, there is a startling lack of basic research on the problem.

Abarca, the dermatologist, has noticed a high incidence of melanomic skin cancer (four times its average rate) and an increase in cases of skin burns and blotches. But he is cautious about blaming ultraviolet radiation. "We need more instruments and information," Abarca says. Neither is forthcoming. A three-year University of Chile project to study the effects of the ozone hole has foundered. The team of scientists has been unable to raise the last $11,000 needed to buy a spectral radiometer, which measures radiation levels. "We are paying the bill for industrialized countries that are depleting the ozone," says Rodolfo Mansilla, who lost 80 sheep to blindness last year. "They have to take an interest."

The Chilean government was dragged into the fray last month. Manuel Baquedano, head of the Institute of Political Ecology, demanded that the government remove 17 children living on a Chilean air base in Antarctica, directly under the ozone hole. Air Force chief Ramon Vega Hidalgo said there was no immediate danger but conceded that the problem should be studied more vigorously and with better instrumentation. Meanwhile, back in Punta Arenas, sunglasses are selling briskly and sunscreen is being stocked in pharmacies for the first time. It is a cold and cloudy afternoon, but Lionel Morales is wearing sunglasses, a wide-brim hat and sun block (factor 15). "I may look silly," he said, "but at least I'm safe." In the Twilight Zone, looking silly may be the only sensible thing to do.