The animal pyres that continue to burn throughout the UK may be spreading carcinogenic dioxins around the country, according to the environmental pressure group, Friends of the Earth.

Residents in areas worst hit by the foot and mouth virus have spent weeks living among the stench of burning animal pyres with environmental minister Michael Meacher now conceding that the dioxins released by the fires can potentially cause significant health risks.

Meacher, who is also acting as chairman of the Rural Task Force during the crisis, defended the pyres however, stating that there is no risk free method to eradicate the disease and all possible measures are in place to minimise risks to the public.

Nevertheless, public health warnings will be issued at the end of this week and the Department of Environment has meanwhile confirmed that the fires that burned during the first six weeks of the crisis released 63g of dioxins into the atmosphere. This amounts to 18% of the UK's average emissions every year.

Dioxins are chemicals formed as a by-product of the heating process, and are known to increase chances of cancer. Scientists have also accumulated a body of knowledge to suggest that exposure to dioxins can affect reproductive health, increase incidence of diabetes and cause behavioural problems. Fears have been raised that the dioxins will carry on the air and settle on crops, thereby entering the food chain. Once eaten, dioxins gather in body tissues and do not break down for years.

The Department of Health is now believed to be launching an immediate investigation into the recent pyres in Devon and the effects on public health.  Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon argued yesterday that the amount of dioxins released by a pyre is "the equivalent of two Bonfire Nights," but conceded that in Devon the situation is different because animal carcasses has been left to rot in the open air because of a lack of means to dispose of them.
 
Furthermore no more pyres will be lit until the government decides on how much danger the burning causes. A pyre in Cumbria for 750 cows and sheep has already been ordered to be dismantles because of the health concerns.

The revelation about dioxins has come at the same time that Friends of the Earth has called on Prime Minister Tony Blair to explain why he ignored the warnings given about the risks of a foot ad mouth crisis. The pressure group argues that Blair was repeatedly warned about the potential problems of intensive farming and large-scale animal movements by EU experts.