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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'