Villagers blame rash of illnesses on 'fields of filth', sewage sludge and abbatoir waste

By Paul Kelbie Scotland Correspondent

09 November 2002

Tom Coles was playing in a field next to his home in the village of Blairingone, building camps and enjoying the pleasures of a rural childhood. A few days later, the boy, then 11, developed a high fever and symptoms of viral meningitis. Hospital tests showed he also had rubella, encephalitis and infectious mononucleosis.

His parents believed immediately they knew the cause: Blairingone's "fields of filth". More than 100 residents in this village, 10 miles south-west of Kinross, Tayside, are campaigning against what they believe is a threat posed to their health by the commercial spraying of organic sewage sludge and other non-agricultural waste on 1,010 acres of land between their homes and the neighbouring village of Saline.

They say the site has become a dumping ground for a cocktail of human waste, industrial by-products and abattoir leftovers. Since the spraying started, more than one in four of the villagers says they have suffered some illness, which they blame on the activities of Northern Hydroseeding, a subsidiary of one of the biggest waste recycling companies in Britain.

Among the symptoms have been blisters the size of 50p pieces, rashes, sore throats and itchy eyes. Others have been diagnosed with german measles, viral meningitis, salmonella poisoning, scarlet fever, asthma, infectious mononucleosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, sickness and diarrhoea, and the brain condition, encephalitis.

The Snowie Group of Companies, which owns Northern Hydroseeding, denies any link between its operations and health problems in the village. "Our researchers have been assuring us there is no link between our activities in the Blairingone area and the alleged symptoms of ill health suffered by some of its residents," a spokeswoman from the company said yesterday.

But the village is not convinced, and Tom continues to suffer from other ailments four years later. "Just days before he took ill there was spraying in the field next to our home," his father, Philip, said yesterday. "The company had been working on it for about four days until about three every morning. The field was just like a blancmange, with green pus oozing out of the soil."

Villagers have set up an action group to press the Scottish Parliament to change the law on organic waste. Under present guidelines, that can include sewage sludge, blood and gut material from abattoirs, distillery waste, paper waste, septic-tank contents and animal manure.

Duncan Hope, of the Blairingone and Saline Action Group, said: "This is not just a local issue. There are communities across the country affected by similar waste-disposal programmes and nobody knows what the health risks are. We cannot prove the illnesses are as a result of the spreading of sewage sludge but it's a remarkable coincidence that they started at about the same time.

"There has never been a proper investigation into the possible link. An inquiry which was set up to look into it never even visited the village or took evidence from any of the residents. What we put into the land now may come back to haunt us in the future."

Rural communities from Cornwall to the north-east of Scotland are suffering similar health fears over the policy, which allows the waste to be spread on the land as "agriculturally beneficial".

The problem began in the Nineties when European legislation stopped the dumping of effluent at sea. Authorities decided spreading sewage sludge on agricultural land was the best environmental option. Another Blairingone group member, Diane Johnson, said: "It is frightening when you consider the amount of chemicals and hormones and medicine which get flushed into the sewage system every day, and which are now being injected into the land from which we grow our food. Many other countries, including Holland, already ban it. Most other European countries have much tighter regulations and farmers are asking to outlaw it altogether. In this country, farmers are required to keep animals off treated land for only three weeks, no time at all. We don't know what the consequences will be. It could be disaster waiting to happen."

Even the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, which has called for a ban on blood-spreading, has conceded a lack of monitoring could lead to "bad practice" and "increased potential for water pollution". In a 1998 report, it described regulations as "inadequate and inconsistent, leading to practices which pose potential public, animal and plant health risks".

Last month, the Scottish Parliament promised to investigate the health scares and to consider plans to tighten controls over the spraying, after MSPs were treated to a harrowing graphic account of the suffering at Blairingone and other communities. The Tory MSP Alex Johnstone, a farmer, told the Parliament: "The practice of spreading blood, guts, abattoir waste or untreated or partially treated sewage sludge on agricultural land is simply bad agricultural practice." The residents of Blairingone are waiting to see if the Parliament's health committee will come to take evidence from those who have suffered illnesses.

Mrs Johnson said: "The standards that govern using treated sewage on soil are based on outdated science. The UK is out of step with modern international practice. It appears the cheapest option of waste disposal has been chosen over health concerns. Maybe now, somebody will listen."