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

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."

News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Life and Style
Tenderstem broccoli omelette with ricotta and pine nuts
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin