Stricter controls on slurry spreading urged after 174% rise in infections


Public health officials have recorded a 174 per cent increase in the rate of verotoxigenic e.coli (VTEC) infection this year, leading to calls for stricter controls on slurry spreading by farmers.

By October 12th, 497 cases of the infection had been notified to the Health Service Executive’s health protection surveillance centre, compared to an average of 181 notifications over the same period in the preceding three years.

“VTEC can cause severe bloody diarrhoea and stomach cramps,” Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) said, adding that the implications are “particularly serious” as it can destroy red blood cells and even cause kidney failure in young children and elderly people.

According to public health consultants, 5 to 10 per cent of Ireland’s seven million cattle have VTEC in their bowels which, when deposited by cattle or spread on fields as slurry, can contaminate drinking water supplies, FIE said.

But Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan “has for the second year again extended the slurry-spreading season into October and November, when heavy rainfall sweeps slurry from the land into rivers and lakes where 80 per cent of our drinking water is sourced”.

The FIE said exposure to contaminated water from untreated or poorly treated private water supplies had been recognised as a risk factor for the infection – and this was “particularly pronounced” after heavy rainfall.

FIE said that, while malfunctioning septic tanks were another source, “the current proposals to increase the number of cattle in Ireland by up to 50 per cent under Food Harvest 2020 is a recipe for disaster”.

“Ireland leads Europe in both e.coli and cryptosporidiosis, both of which are carried by cattle. Yet in spite of these figures no effort has been made by successive governments to address the issue [by promoting the use of anaerobic digesters to convert slurry to energy].”

FIE said future extended slurry-spreading seasons should set buffer zones around vulnerable drinking-water sources.