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Wednesday, 4 April, 2001, 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK
Animal disposal row intensifies
Burning cows, AP
Official concern is over 'air quality and odour issues'
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

As foot-and-mouth disease claims ever more victims, the UK Government stands accused of ignoring the pollution impacts in its haste to halt the outbreak.

Local authorities fear that slaughtered animals could contaminate air and water.

Crisis in the UK
Cases confirmed on Wednesday 14
Total confirmed cases 1,005
379,000 animals due for slaughter
631,000 animals have been slaughtered
439,000 carcasses destroyed
Several say the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) is failing to consult them.

And fears persist that dead cattle could also spread BSE, "mad cow disease".

The Environment Agency (EA) is responsible for environmental protection in England and Wales: the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) does a similar job in Scotland.

The EA has agreed with Maff "a hierarchy of preferences for disposal of carcasses":

  • Rendering at a normal rendering plant - this is "likely to be highly effective in destroying the virus"
  • Incineration in authorised incinerators - "highly effective in destroying the virus and carcass"
  • Disposal in landfill sites (rubbish tips) - an option the agency says "minimises risks to groundwater"
  • Burning carcasses on the farm - this should mean a low risk of transmitting the foot-and-mouth virus, but "may give rise to short-term air quality and odour issues"
  • Burial on the farm - an option involving "significant medium- to long-term risks to groundwater, and potential for land to be blighted".
But a respected technical journal, the Ends Report, published by Environmental Data Services, says there is concern about what escapes into the air when carcasses are burnt, and about pollution of water supplies.

Hazardous substances

"Local authorities responsible for air quality have been shut out by Maff as pyres burning hundreds of thousands of animals release polluting emissions," it says.

The fires use wooden railway sleepers, coal, and old tyres, and, the report says, emit "a variety of hazardous substances including dioxins, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and particulates".

It interviewed one environmental health officer from Castle Morpeth borough council in Northumberland, the authority which includes Heddon-on-the-Wall, identified as the source of the outbreak.

He told Ends: "We have had no input and haven't been consulted by Maff at all."

Another, from West Devon borough council, an area badly affected by the disease, said: "Maff's priority is to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease. They are not showing proper regard for environmental considerations, or the possible impact on public health."

Risks to environment

He said slaughtered animals on one Devon farm had been doused with disinfectant which had contaminated a shallow well supplying local farms.

The EA's foot-and-mouth task force leader, Geoff Bateman, said there was "unprecedented" use at the moment of disinfectants containing phenolics and peroxides, both directly toxic to aquatic life.

The National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection (NSCA) believes that the risks of burning carcasses are at least as great as those arising from burial.

Tim Brown, NSCA's deputy secretary, told BBC News Online: "The top of our own hierarchy of preferences is burial, so long as there's no risk to the groundwater.

If you decide burning is the best option, we'd like a proper look at napalm.

Tim Brown, NSCA
"There's a real problem with burning, because we can see no copper-bottomed guarantee that the foot-and-mouth virus will not escape.

"Some times the carcasses explode on the pyres. And we just don't know what the risk of spreading BSE may be.

"The government has put it at less than one in a million, but in fact there's no way of knowing whether the causative agent, the prion, will be destroyed or dispersed.

"If you decide burning is the best option, we'd like a proper look at napalm. It sounds ideal: it's very hot, it burns quickly, and it coats the carcasses in a gel while they burn. And it's a lot cheaper than building a pyre."

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