Marked Over 160 “Anthrax Graves” Around Iceland

An icelandic horse at sunset

Veterinarian Sigurður Sigurðarson and his wife Ólöf Erla Halldórsdóttir have been travelling around Iceland since 2004 on a mission to mark the graves of animals who died of anthrax, Bændablaðið reports. The bacteria that causes anthrax, which can be fatal to both animals and humans, can survive for hundreds of years underground. The couple wants to ensure locals and passers-by are aware of the risks of tampering with the soil covering these graves, which can bring the dangerous bacteria back to the surface.

“A few times I thought I had finished the project, but then I got information about farms and places that had been forgotten,” Sigurður stated. He has marked over 160 graves in 130 locations. The markings are white, cylindrical posts marked with the letter “A,” for anthrax. “A marking at these locations is a reminder to show caution and be alert if it’s necessary to disturb the soil at that location.”

Anthrax Bacterium Can Survive Dormant Indefinitely

Though the bacterium that causes anthrax poses little threat to animals and humans while underground, it can remain active for hundreds of years. “The bacterium that causes anthrax can live dormant in the soil almost indefinitely, but seems to pose little risk on the surface near graves after a few weeks, likely due to the effects of sunlight and erosion,” Sigurður explains. “That is why it’s important to know where danger lies and mark it, to caution against digging, which could bring the infectious agent up to the surface.”

The most recent case of anthrax in Iceland was in 2004, when sea erosion exposed a ridge where a large farm animal had been buried in 1874, 130 years earlier. Soil from the ridge was carried onto the pastureland of four horses, and three died suddenly. The fourth became ill and had to be put down.

Sigurður and Ólöf are now travelling around the country to check on the markings they have placed in previous years, and hopefully complete the project for good. They encourage locals with any information about past anthrax cases and associated graves to get in touch. They also hope landowners will lend a helping hand when it comes to any maintenance that may be necessary to keep the markings in good shape. Sigurður is compiling a full report on the project that will be submitted to the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST).

Sigurður and Ólöf have carried out the project on a volunteer basis, though they have had help from sponsors around the country. Sigurður expressed his thanks to all of the project’s supporters, including former Minister of Agriculture Guðni Ágústsson.