Families of children born fingerless or with webbed hands and feet are to go to court on Monday to try to secure a multimillion-pound payout for birth defects which they claim were caused by a council's mismanagement of toxic waste dumps.
The case is being compared to the thalidomide scandal of the 1960s and 1970s, when parents brought claims arising from their children's severe birth defects caused by having taken the drug for morning sickness.
In the new case, mothers allege that during their pregnancies in the 1980s and 1990s they were exposed to contamination from waste sites left over from the clean-up of Northamptonshire's former steel industry based in Corby. Toxicology and medical experts have told the families that the rate of upper and lower-limb abnormality in Corby is 10 times higher than the national average.
Des Collins, the solicitor running the case, said he had medical evidence that would prove the children's deformities are linked to the toxic waste dumps left by the former steel industry. He said: "We have now got medical reports that rule out alternative explanations for what caused the limb deformities in these children."
The town became a steel-making centre in the 1930s and by 1960 was one of the most heavily industrialised areas in the Midlands. In the early Eighties, the industry became unprofitable and British Steel closed the site, leaving the local council to take care of the clean-up operation.
But Corby Borough Council denies any responsibility and has already spent £1m on lawyers and a public relations firm to defend the allegations. Final defence costs are set to reach £2.5m.
Chris Mallender, Corby council's chief executive, said in pre-trial statement: "We have a great deal of sympathy with every child involved in this litigation, as well as with their families. However, for the past five years we have thoroughly investigated every aspect of the claims they are making and we know that there is no link between the reclamation work that was carried out in Corby, over a period of 20 years, and these children's birth defects."
The council will submit medical evidence to the court to rebut any comparisons with the human limb defects caused by the thalidomide drug between 1956 and 1962.
Dr Anthony Emmerson, consultant neonatal paediatrician at St Mary's Hospital, Manchester, concludes that the only teratogen (the agent that causes malformation or birth defects in foetuses) known to have produced human limb defects in the UK is thalidomide. His report states: "Of key importance is that the drug [thalidomide] was ingested in significant dosages during the critical period of three to eight weeks of pregnancy. In this case, the mothers of the claimants did not reside in Corby during their pregnancies, merely visited. It would need to be proven that during the crucial stage of their pregnancy they were subject to huge doses of offending teratogens."
Case study: "What's the matter with his hand?" I asked them
*Joy Shatford, 35, the mother in one of the lead cases in the legal action, recalled the air full of pungent fumes when council engineers began reopening some of the estimated eight to 16 toxic pits scattered around Corby. Dozens of lorries were used to transport the poisonous waste – mostly lead and zinc by-products from the steel-making industry – to two sealed containers north-east of the town.
"You could taste it in the air; it was sour, gassy and acidic. Then it was common knowledge that this was because they were digging up the pits," she said.
A few months later, Mrs Shatford, a secretary at a Kettering accountants, gave birth to her first son, Daniel, now 12. "The nurses just wrapped him up and gave him to me. They didn't say anything about his hand."
It was only when Mrs Shatford unravelled the tiny bundle of blankets that she discovered her son had been born with no fingers on his left hand. "I asked them, 'What's the matter with his hand?' It was such a shock. I just felt numb. I was left thinking I must have done something wrong during my pregnancy. But I didn't smoke or drink; I didn't even take an aspirin. It took me a long time to come to terms with what happened."
Years later, Mrs Shatford discovered she was far from alone. Now, nearly 20 years after the first cases of Corby hand deformity emerged, 18 families are to go to the High Court on Monday.