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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
What's the point of foot-and-mouth mats?
Irish border
No entry: Disinfecting the highways and byways
Agriculture minister Nick Brown says the use of disinfected mats is mostly symbolic in the fight against foot-and-mouth. Are they any use?

We've all been urged to do whatever possible to contain the spread of foot-and-mouth - and disinfectant is seen as a prime weapon in the fight against the disease.

I am advised that the issue of disinfected mats is rather more symbolic than real

Nick Brown
Farms, roads, race courses, border patrols, even country pubs have rolled out the disinfectant-soaked mats for all those who wish to pass.

But in the South West mats have been disregarded in the bid to stop foot-and-mouth spreading from one county to another.

Cornwall, which so far has just three cases of foot-and-mouth compared with 120 in Devon, is keen to stop the virus in its tracks.

Wheel baths have been deployed on back roads that cross the Devon-Cornwall border, following advice from the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff).

Channel Tunnel wheel wash
Don't be where the disinfectant splashes
But on the three trunk roads that join the counties there are no such precautionary measures. Disinfectant mats are notable by their absence.

When quizzed in Parliament, Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown said disinfected matting "is more symbolic than real".

That reinforces advice from Maff officials earlier this month that putting disinfectant on one of the main roads from Devon to Cornwall would be little more than a psychological advantage.

This is apparently because swift-moving vehicles, with warm tyres, are thought to be far less likely to spread foot-and-mouth than those on rural lanes.

Ineffective on roads

Devon County Council, which is charge of highways, has warned that the mats are ineffective and may even prove hazardous to drivers.

Queen Mother disinfects shoes
Anyone can be a carrier
"Driving over them does not clean the mud off wheel arches where possibly the virus could be carried," a spokesman said.

Maff advises that the only way to remove the virus from vehicles, footwear and clothing in contact with infected livestock is to spray or scrub thoroughly with disinfectant.

Not only can disinfectant be ineffective, if badly handled it can be an environmental liability. Last week, disinfectant used during the cull of cattle in Anglesey leaked into a spring, killing hundreds of trout and eel.

It was the first serious water contamination of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and the first attributed to disinfectant.

Waste leakage

Other, more minor contaminations, had been due to blood and animal waste leaking into rivers, said an Environment Agency spokeswoman.

Disinfected straw
Disinfectant is packed with environmental nasties
"There are 30 different types of disinfectant being used and they are all very strong. That's why we're urging people to dispose of used disinfectant very carefully, well away from drains and waterways."

Packed with environmental nasties such as ammonia and phosphorus, disinfectant both pollutes and deoxygenates water. Thus it poisons and suffocates aquatic life.

The Environment Agency recommends farmers pour used disinfectant into a slurry or manure store, which is then disposed of on land. Others, such as pub owners, are advised to pour small amounts of spent disinfectant onto permanent grass.

Wheel and foot baths should be well away from drains and disinfected straw should be composted or dumped in a licensed landfill.

But symbolic or not, the mats do make people stop - and maybe think - about whether they could be carrying the virus from one place to another.

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