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
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick