Women living near incinerators have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida or a heart defect, research released yesterday said. It also found an increased risk of stillbirths among women who lived close to a crematorium.

The researchers, who were led by Professor Louise Parker of Newcastle University and who published their findings in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, stressed that they did not find conclusive evidence that living near an incinerator or crematorium caused birth defects or stillbirths.

But they said the issue should be investigated further, especially as incineration was becoming a widely used method of waste disposal.

The research analysed births in Cumbria between 1956 and 1993. There were almost 245,000 births, of which 3,234 were stillborn and 1,569 had congenital abnormalities.

The risk of neural tube defects, particularly spina bifida, for babies of women who lived near incinerators was 17 per cent higher, and heart defects 12 per cent higher. For women who lived near a crematorium, the risk of stillbirth was 4 per cent higher and the chance of the baby having a brain abnormality known as anencephalus was 5 per cent higher.