Toxic dumps: official inquiry ordered

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The Independent Online
By Fran Abrams Westminster Correspondent

MINISTERS HAVE commissioned a study into reports that mothers living within two miles of toxic waste dumps are much more likely than normal to have babies with birth defects.

Research has found the apparent link between the defects and landfill sites where toxic waste is buried. Other studies have backed it up. The health and environment departments called experts to a meeting last month and a two-year project is being set up to identify the extent of the problem.

Community campaign groups say their areas have suffered higher-than- expected numbers of ailments such as heart defects and gastroschisis, where a child is born with intestines outside the body. They also complain of stomach upsets, asthma and sore throats. In some areas, groups say their lives are made a misery by flies and appalling smells.

There are 270 dumps licensed to bury toxic or "special" waste such as arsenic, cadmium or cyanide in the UK, and there are no rules to prevent them being sited near houses. The new study will be done by the Small Area Health Statistics Unit at Imperial College, London, and will also look at the incidence of cancer near landfill sites.

Environmental campaigners and opposition MPs say Labour has failed to implement a pre-election promise to give the public full access to information on pollution.

Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat environment spokes-man, introduced a "Right to Know" Bill in Parliament last week. Although it has no chance of success, he hopes it will test the government's resolve.

Mike Childs, senior pollution campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said some community groups that raised the issue had not been taken seriously.

"It seems common sense that if you dump toxic waste in a hole in the ground then it's going to cause problems," he said. "Communities do not even have the right to know what chemicals are being dumped in landfill sites."

A European directive expected to be finalised shortly will ban disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste on the same sites.

A report published in The Lancet last summer by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied 21 waste sites across the UK and Europe. It found a 33 per cent higher risk of defects including spina bifida, heart disease and gastroschisis. A bigger study in the United States found a 12 per cent higher chance of major birth defects within a mile of a dump site. But other research done abroad has not supported the findings.

Further studies near two sites in the Rhondda by the University of Wales College of Medicine in Cardiff concluded more research was urgently needed. The college's team is now looking at whether women living near toxic landfill sites take longer to conceive.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, which commissioned the new study with the Department of Health, said the London research could not be applied here because British landfill sites were better engineered. The high incidence of abnormality could have other causes, she suggested.

"The research didn't actually conclude there was any problem," she said. "It just said there might be. In Europe they do not have as much regulation as we do."