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Research shows high levels of pollutants over Cumbria:
Threat of civil disorder over health fears intensifies

April 28, 2001 The Guardian (London) by Peter Hetherington and John Vidal
Renewed concern about the health hazards from foot and mouth burial sites and blazing pyres emerged yesterday with the first results from independent research showing higher than average levels of dangerous airborne pollutants from a big disposal area in Cumbria.

Consultants have told Allerdale council, which covers a swath of Lakeland and the surrounding area with the highest number of foot and mouth cases, that on occasions short-term levels of potentially deadly chemicals from one large pyre exceeded national air quality standards.

At the same time, the threat of civil disorder intensified in Devon as people demonstrated outside a waste tip at Deepford complaining they had been kept in the dark over plans to bury 50,000 carcasses. They say local streams and water supplies will be polluted if the burial goes ahead.

While the four-day pollution study at a farm pyre near Caldbeck, in north Cumbria, revealed average concentrations within accepted levels, the company that undertook the research said that a big question mark still remained over the wider atmospheric impact.

Dr Steve Bradley, of Whitehaven-based Westlakes Scientific Consulting, said a national survey was needed to investigate more distant airborne pollution from the pyres, which send thick, acrid smock high into the atmosphere. This was necessary "to give people confidence".

The study was undertaken from a mobile laboratory downwind of a pyre, which incinerated 500 cattle and needed 700 tonnes of coal, 3,800 railway sleepers, 900 wooden pallets, 60 tonnes of straw and 7,600 litres of diesel.

"People exposed to smoke at the locations monitored would clearly find it unpleasant and a nuisance," said Peter Daley, Allerdale's environmental health manager. "Whilst in these instances people should not have suffered any long-term health problems, the results do give sufficient grounds to strengthen the concerns that have been expressed about this type of burning."

With Cumbrians growing increasingly militant over the number of pyres in the county, people in Devon further raised the stakes in their battle with officialdom by demonstrating outside the Deepmoor pit. "Feeling is running very high," said a resident, Pat Boulton. "We were given assurances that this tip would not be used and we have been lied to. It is totally unsuitable and we feel certain it will pollute streams. If there is any leakage it will be a catastrophe people rely on water from wells and spring-fed water as their only supply."

But a spokesman for Devon Waste Management, which runs the site, said only sheep and pigs would be buried. "This is a crisis and things move very fast. We were served notice by the Ministry of Agriculture which required us to take the carcasses."

Protesters at the giant Ashmoor pit at Meeth, west Devon, which could take up to 350,000 carcasses, are working with solicitors to prevent what they fear will be another public health disaster. "We have had three meetings with Maff," said a spokesman for the Stop the Ashmoor Site Group. "One was a shambles, the second was patronising, and the third left us more worried than before. The health assurances we have been given are minimal."

Fresh evidence of the impact of foot and mouth came when a small survey suggested a third of farmers hit by the disease plan to scale down their industries. The minister of agriculture, Nick Brown, acknow ledged the outbreak could be the last straw for some livestock farmers. "They have been through four years of depressed incomes and there are a range of reasons for that, including the backwash from the BSE outbreak and low world commodity prices," he said.

"The average age of the industry is 58 and when farmers go through the heartbreaking process of seeing their stock slaughtered they are bound to think whether they should go through the business of restocking and starting again."

The biggest impact of the epidemic is still being felt away from farms. The British Tourist Authority said up to 300,000 jobs could be lost through a big drop in visitors to the countryside. Up to a quarter of jobs could go in some areas, with around pounds 5bn in trade lost, the chairman, David Quarmby, said.


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