Parents of 30 children sue over birth defects they blame on clean-up of toxic waste dumps

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The Independent Online

Mothers of 30 children born with webbed hands or webbed feet have won the right to bring a multimillion-pound legal action to try to prove a link between the mismanagement of toxic waste dumps and the birth defects.

Expert evidence submitted to the High Court in London supports the mothers' claim that during their pregnancies they were exposed to contamination from the waste sites left over from the clean-up of Northamptonshire's former steel industry.

In a major breakthrough for the families, a judge has given permission for the parents to pursue the claim against Corby Borough Council as a group action involving children born between 1985 and 1999.

Corby became a steel-making centre in the 1930s after rich iron ore deposits were found and by 1960 was one of the most heavily industrialised areas in the Midlands. But in the early Eighties the industry became unprofitable and British Steel closed the site, leaving the council to take care of the clean-up operation.

Dozens of lorries were used to transport the residual poisonous waste, mostly lead and zinc by-products from the steel-making process, to two sealed containers north-east of the town. Some of the claimants remember the air full of pungent fumes when council engineers began opening the toxic pits - between eight and 16 of them - scattered around Corby.

The families' case relies on scientific reports that show the rates of upper-limb defect in babies born in Corby during that time were about three times higher than those of children born in the surrounding area. A further report describes the subsequent clean-up operation as "environmental negligence on a grand scale" while another concludes that exposure to the harmful chemicals is likely to have caused the children's deformities.

Des Collins, the solicitor acting for the eight lead families in the case, said the parents wanted to know why so many children from a relatively small community were born with upper- and lower-limb deformities. In particular they want to know whether negligence was a factor. He said: "The claimants' case is that it is known toxic chemicals can produce a range of congenital defects, and that exposure of a mother or a father prior to or during pregnancy can affect the development of a child and is capable of producing congenital malfunctions." Many of the children face years of painful restorative surgery as doctors remove some of their toes so they can graft them on to their hands to act as fingers. Mr Collins added: "In all cases there is no family history of limb defect and those advising the parents have been unable to provide any medical explanation for the condition."

A report by Roger Braithwaite, an environmental expert instructed by the families, concludes that the negligent handling of the wastedemonstrated "naivety, arrogance, ignorance, incompetence and a possible serious conflict of interest ... At this early stage it would seem to me that these ... badly polluted lands have never been effectively or comprehensively assessed, properly permitted, regulated, monitored or adequate records maintained ... This is environmental negligence on a grand scale."

An order approved by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, to be published next week, will set out the terms of the litigation in relation to the council's management and execution of the "land reclamation contracts" between 1985 and 1999 and any duty they had to the families.

Chris Mallender, the borough council's chief executive, said: "Now we will finally be able to answer these charges and show that our town regeneration has been clean and safe."

Joann Harrison, 24: 'It is illogical but you end up blaming yourself'

Joann Harrison had moved away from Corby by the time her daughter India was born. It took a phone call from her father, who still lived in the town, to suggest that there might be link between India's deformed left hand and her mother's exposure to toxic chemicals in old waste dumps.

Ms Harrison was living eight miles away in Kettering and blamed herself for India's physical deformities. "You go through everything that you had done while you were pregnant. How could I have prevented her from being like this? I was convinced I was being punished for mocking the afflicted sometime in my life. It's completely illogical but you end up blaming yourself."

After India's father called Ms Harrison remembered that during her pregnancy she had spent many days visiting family and friends in the Corby area. It was a time when the waste dumps were being disturbed by the reclamation project and Ms Harrison believes she was exposed to the contamination.

Some of her friends and neighbours had children born with similarly rare defects. "It was very odd. We all lived near to each other, everybody knew everybody else. We had played together or went to school together. And we all had children with this deformity."

Ms Harrison says of India, aged six: "She doesn't like to let it stop her doing what she wants. Because her sister can do handstands, she wants to copy her. But she hasn't got the strength in her left hand. She tries it a few times, but then leaves it." Doctors say she will eventually lose movement of her shortened arm.

Ms Harrison says: "All I really want to know is how and why Corby has created a whole generation of children with arm, hand and foot defects. That's all we all want. So we can say to our children when they grow up that we did our best to give them the answers to the questions they will be asking themselves."