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The killing fields: More foot-and-mouth lessons from the United Kingdom. (EH Update).

Stuart Spear

In talk with environmental health officers (EHOs) who have spent months in the front line of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, it is not long before the U.K. government's handling of the crisis is described by some as "incompetent" and by many more as "secretive," "uncommunicative," and "obstructive."

From the start of the outbreak in February Rural EHOs in Devon, Cumbria, Northumberland, and parts of Wales were aware that unless managed carefully the foot-and-mouth epidemic could become a serious public-health issue. Dead cattle, lying in fields for up to three weeks; pyres built near people's homes, where residents may be asthmatic; and animals buried on farms or in pits of up to half a million carcasses were all potential threats to public health. It was up to EHOs to ensure that rural communities were protected.

MAFF Failure

Early on, it became clear that the lead ministry the now-disbanded Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Foods (MAFF), was overwhelmed by the scale of the outbreak. Initial attempts to plot the virus by trying to unravel the web of complex animal movements were soon abandoned, while outbreaks mushroomed around the country As parts of Britain were turned into killing fields, EHOs found themselves working all hours. They were responsible for organizing the distribution of disinfectant; arranging waste collections; controlling the movement of unpasteurized dairy products; supporting MAFF; issuing export certificates; and checking that pet farms, owners of animals on allotments, and riding schools were taking adequate precautions.

EHOs also became the point of contact for increasingly worried local communities. According to Jeremy Mann, environmental manager for North Devon District Council (DC), "We discovered that the public see local government as an extension of central government in a crisis and expect council staff to be appraised of what is going on. The problem was that we were not being told either.... There were concerns about odor problems and contamination of water supplies, and the local community wanted to know what precautions to take, If they found smut on their child's climbing frame, would there be a risk? They just did not have the information."

EHOs quickly realized that communication between central and local government was the first casualty in the battle against the virus. Simon O'Neil, principal EHO for East Devon, explains: "The crisis showed what EHOs are good at, which is using our local knowledge, and that is the one area where we could have been useful in terms of PR and communication. Instead, MAFF officials... just turned up, shot things, and disappeared."

A failure to include EHOs in decisions about where pyres should be sited and how they should be constructed created numerous problems early on. Pyres were poorly built, with low-grade coal and railway sleepers, creating thick plumes of smoke with high particulate and sulfur-dioxide content. There were also reports of tires being used to speed up the burning process.

"We had very heavy air pollution with huge pails of smoke obliterating premises in some areas," says David Ingham of Carlisle DC. "There were no controls over where pyres were sited--we tried to flag problems with MAFF, but there was no process of consultation."

But according to Mike Phillips, director of community service for Allerdale DC, councils should take some responsibility for the breakdown in communication. "Local government was too slow in responding. We vacillated about working with others. We did not indicate as a profession that we were in the loop, and we suffered, as there was no framework in place for working together. In America, they have regular exercises for this sort of thing, and we should have had better contingency plans."

Public-Health Fears

As the crisis moved into March and April, EHOs became more vocal about their concerns that public-health issues were not being addressed. The siting of pyres and the burial of cattle near private water supplies were causing serious concerns about the spread of E. coli, Salmonella, and Cryptosporidium.

EHOs in East Devon were concerned that slaughtered sheep were being left for weeks near streams. "We could see that some sheep had been slaughtered right by streams that fed rivers running into valley catchments used for significant numbers of private water supplies and the aquifer that fed the town of Seaton," said Mr. O'Neil.

Dead animals lying exposed for weeks on farmland were also causing distress to farmers and their families. "It was causing general distaste. Body fluids were flowing out of gates onto roads," said West Devon environmental health manager David Banks. "We also had reports of rats and birds attacking carcasses, as in most cases carcasses were left uncovered. Overall, we were lucky not to have a serious outbreak of disease from the rats."

The potential contamination of food supplies from pyres was also causing EHOs concern, something that was later to prove justified as the Food Standards Agency issued warnings about the possible contamination of full-fat milk from dioxins.

But the issue that worried local people and created the most press attention was what the government was doing about the potential spread of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) prion, which is not destroyed at high temperatures.

West Devon EHOs first raised concerns about the prion in February They were worried that it might infect private water supplies or contaminate locally produced food by being carried on pieces of hair rising from burning carcasses on air currents. After contacting their local member of parliament, EHOs realized that MAFF was not monitoring the age of cattle being buried. Devon has a large number of dairy cows over five years old. Those cows are in the highest BSE-risk category as they were born before feed controls were introduced.

Problems surrounding the potential contamination of private water supplies were further compounded by MAFF'S failure to follow guidance from Seac, the government's advisory body on BSE. Scientists had advised that the ash of animals over five years old should be removed for incineration. But ash was being buried on farms regardless of the age of cattle and is only now being removed. As Mr. Banks explains: "The problem is that we don't have any confidence in MAFF's records, which are at best incomplete."

Problems faced by West Country EHOs were being shared by colleagues in the north. But the latter group had the additional problem of odor from large-scale burial pits. Again, lack of consultation with local communities was causing civil unrest, with police involved in protests at Widdrington, near Morpeth in Northumberland. The Widdrington pit contained over 100,000 sheep carcasses.

Lessons Learned

As reported cases of foot and mouth now start to decrease, has the profession learned anything from the crisis? Better and earlier interagency liaison is needed not just with government bodies, but also with neighboring authorities and county councils. Also, experiences should not be forgotten, as was the case with the 1967 outbreak.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak is likely to create a legacy for EHOs. Under the contaminated-land regime, they are responsible for assessing the potential risk of foot-and-mouth sites. "A view was taken on burial and burn sites by the Environment Agency to do with groundwater, hydrology, and conservation issues, but wider public-health issues were overlooked," explains Mr. Phillips, who has started assessing Allerdale DC'S burn and burial sites for the council's contaminated-land register. He says: "There may not be pathways or receptors from these sites now, but they still have to be dealt with, as they are gray areas due to plans farmers may have for further developments."

(Adapted with permission from the Environmental Health Journal of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, August 2001.)
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Article Details
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Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Abstract
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Words:1263
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