Britain's blazing foot and mouth pyres are spewing out more deadly pollutants than all the country's factories combined, unpublished official figures indicate.
The Government has admitted that no systematic checks are being made on the pollution, no single body is responsible for controlling it, and no assessment of the health effects have been carried out.
The massive airborne emissions are of dioxins; carcinogens 1,000 times more deadly than arsenic. The pollution poses yet another risk to agriculture and the countryside, as well to public health. Environmentalists fear that the pollution will make farmland unusable for long after the crisis has ended.
These revelations, the result of an inquiry by The Independent on Sunday, come as protests are rising both about the pyres and about the disposal of the carcasses of slaughtered animals.
Families blockaded lorries taking carcasses to a pyre at Hemscott Hill, Northumberland, in protest at "a criminal lack of concern for public health" and residents promised a "battle" over another at Epynt, near Brecon in Wales. Ten days ago people in Longtown, Cumbria, forced the Government to abandon a pyre designed to burn 3,000 dead animals a day.
Meanwhile other protest groups are fighting plans to bury hundreds of thousands of carcasses in giant pits. In Devon alone, 174,600 dead animals are rotting in fields, posing their own health risks; the National Farmers' Union says that they are making large parts of the county "uninhabitable". There is also increasing concern about disinfectant polluting streams and possibly contaminating water supplies.
Top officials said yesterday that ministers were suddenly "waking up" to the fact that the crisis was developing into a major threat to public health, adding a dramatic new dimension to the two-month-long emergency. They are beginning to realise that, while neither the disease itself, nor vaccination, pose any dangers to human health, the official policy of wholescale slaughter is leading to a whole series of new threats.
"This is the latest cock-up in a whole series of them," said one senior adviser. "The track record to date gives little confidence that it will be tackled effectively." Ministers are now preparing new guidelines to protect public health in the disposal of carcasses, which will include provisions for smaller, less polluting pyres.
Tony Blair is also keen to cut back on the burning, because of its impact on television viewers and would-be tourists overseas. But official figures released to The Independent on Sunday, from a study carried out for the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions by AEA Technology's National Environmental Technology Centre, suggest that these will come too little, too late to stop major contamination of the countryside.
The study estimates that by 5pm on 6 April, by when some 500,000 animals had been destroyed, 63 grams of dioxins had been emitted by the pyres. This compares with some 88 grams released from all of the countries' biggest and most hazardous factories in a year. Officials admit that the total emissions will be much higher.
Dioxins are so toxic that the World Health Organisation recommends that the average-sized person should be exposed to no more than around 30 billionths of a gram of them each year. That means the pyres have already produced enough dioxins to deliver a dangerous dose, in theory, to a third of the world's population. Dioxins are one of the most potent carcinogens known, a suspected cause of birth defects and disrupt the hormonal system, causing gender-bending in wildlife.
They are released by burning chlorine, and emitted from the pyres from PVC, from wood treated with chlorinated pesticides and from disinfectants used on the carcasses. But the study is only a desk-top investigation. Virtually no measurements have been taken of pollution from the pyres.
The DETR admits that only one pyre, the one at Epynt, is being monitored in this way by the Environment Agency for Powys County County and the Welsh National Assembly.
The pollution has raised the fear that farmland will be sterilised for long after the crisis is over. Farm produce had to be banned from land near a Coalite Chemicals factory near Bolsover in 1991, after dioxin contamination, and the pollutant remained in the soil for years afterwards.
Mike Childs, Campaigns Director for Friends of the Earth, said he was shocked at the amount of dioxins being produced and added: "Releases on this scale could provide farmers with a dreadful double whammy. After losing their livestock because of foot and mouth, they may find their farms heavily contaminated and unuseable as a result of the Government's short-sighted obsession with slaughter."