Humans in foot-and-mouth areas now face CJD, warns government scientist

Daily Express 25 May 2001

THE Government’s top BSE adviser admitted last night that he would not drink tap water near foot-and-mouth burial sites.

Professor Peter Smith warned that there was a risk of developing the human form of mad cow disease by drinking contaminated water.

Villagers living near the burial sites said they were horrified to learn their water could be unsafe to drink.

There are 90 sites across the country where cattle more than five years old - the highest BSE risk- have been buried.

Professor Smith estimated that the risk of developing CJD from contaminated water could be as high as one in 200,000 in burial pits where older cattle have not first been incinerated. In other sites where older cattle have been burned and then buried, the contamination risk is around one in a million. He also confirmed that ash from the fires could spread contaminated particles.

The Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health last night said they had not ruled out digging up burial sites after urgent risk assessment checks had been carried out The warning came on the day it was revealed that CJD had claimed its 100th victim. Only six are still alive. Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Paddy Ashdown’s nephew, 34-year-old William Armstead, died from the disease, an inquest heard yesterday. Mr Armstead, of Lympstone, Devon, who died last month, was victim No 98.

More cattle are expected to be buried after an upsurge in the foot-and-mouth crisis, with two new cases yesterday bringing the total to 1,639.

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown was jeered by protesters as he visited the latest blackspot,, the Yorkshire Dales. He admitted there had been delays identifying the disease there. The Ministry knew of the "significant risks" of feeding swill to pigs ---the likeliest source of the epidemic —long before the current outbreak, it was claimed. A leaked memo by Ministry vet Charles Ross suggests the practice was "a timebomb waiting to go off".

Professor Smith is chairman of a committee which advises ministers on BSE and CJD. He stressed that the risk of contamination is only from cattle over five years old - but it is still very real. "There may be some contamination of the water, ‘which would have its most immediate impact on people living nearby," he said.

"If animals are burned in a pyre and their ash is buried, we assessed the risk to people living nearby. It would be less than one in a million, which is a small risk but it is still a risk It would be six times that if the carcasses were not burned."

Britain has burned or buried more than three million animals - although many of them are sheep -since the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth in February.

"Next to a burial pit wouldn’t be the first place I would want to live," Professor Smith said after meeting officials from the Ministry and Department of Health.

"I would want to do more tests on the site. I would want to have some idea what the risks were. If there were a large number of animals buried over the age of five years I would not be happy drinking the tap water near one of those burial sites."

Residents close to one of Britain’s biggest sites in Widdrington, Northumberland, where 128,000 animal carcasses are buried, were appalled.

Peter Kull said: "Just when you didn’t think It could get any worse it suddenly does. We’re wondering if the shadow of this plague will ever be lifted from our countryside. We have no confidence in the authorities, so clearly this latest development is alarming to say the least. We have to live here, and our children will have to live here with the legacy of whatever should occur in the future."

Tory agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo called for a quick review to assess any risks in a "calm and sober way".

But he added: "It is clear the Ministry disposed of a lot of carcasses without analysing the risks in advance. It was all part of the muddle they were in as the carcasses were mounting up. it is important they review pretty quickly whether there are any serious risks and take preventative action."

Meanwhile, Peter Jones, of waste management firm Biffa, warned of the risks of BSE being spread through infected proteins called prions.

Mr Jones, whose firm’s sites have taken only sheep carcasses, said: "No one has proved unequivocally that these sites provide prion blockage. There is always the possibility of prion transfer through landfill into the drinking water supply if you have problems with the liner system."

Friends of the Earth last night condemned the Government for not segregating older cattle.

The Department of Health said:

"The Environment Agency will be carrying out risk assessments at burial sites where cattle over five years old may have been buried."

The Ministry of Agriculture said advice not to bury animals without burning them had been received too late. "Digging up the burial sites has not been ruled out. At the moment we are trying to identify the farms where animals were buried."