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STUDY OBJECTIVE: To investigate whether residents in the vicinity of the Sea Empress tanker spill suffered an increase in self reported physical and psychological symptoms, which might be attributable to exposure to crude oil. DESIGN: Retrospective cohort study; postal questionnaire including demographic details, a symptom checklist, beliefs about health effects of oil and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression and SF-36 mental health scales. SETTING: Populations living in four coastal towns on the exposed south Pembrokeshire coast and two control towns on the unexposed north coast. PATIENTS: 539 exposed and 550 unexposed people sampled at random from the family health services authority age-sex register who completed questionnaires. MAIN RESULTS: Adjusted odds ratios for self reported physical symptoms; scores on the Hospital Anxiety and Depression and SF-36 mental health scales, in 1089 people who responded out of a possible 1585 (69%). CONCLUSIONS: Living in areas exposed to the crude oil spillage was significantly associated with higher anxiety and depression scores, worse mental health; and self reported headache (odds ratio = 2.35, 95% CI 1.56, 3.55), sore eyes (odds ratio = 1.96, 95% CI 1.06, 3.62), and sore throat (odds ratio = 1.70, 95% CI 1.12, 2.60) after adjusting for age, sex, smoking status, anxiety, and the belief that oil had affected health. People living in exposed areas reported higher rates of physical and psychological symptoms than control areas. Symptoms significantly associated with exposure after adjustment for anxiety and health beliefs were those expected from the known toxicological effect of oil, suggesting a direct health effect on the exposed population.