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Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Birth defect link to landfill sites
Landfill site
The survey studied 9,500 landfill sites
Babies born to mothers living near landfill sites are more likely to suffer minor birth defects, a study has shown.

The government-backed research also showed that 80% of the population lived within 2km of a landfill site.

The study, due to be published in the British Medical Journal on Friday, shows that pregnant women have a 1% higher risk of having a baby with a congenital defect, if they live near a landfill site.

On average 153 babies per 10,000 are born with birth defects.

But the 11-year study was unable to define what the reasons for the link were.

We are not changing our advice to pregnant women and they should continue with the recommended ante-natal programme

Dr Pat Troop

Birth defects

Dr Pat Troop, the government's deputy chief medical officer, said this could mean an extra 100 babies being born annually with defects, such as spina bifida, abdominal wall and gut problems and 2,500 more low weight babies.

Those living near landfill sites containing hazardous waste were at a 7% higher risk of having a baby with congenital defects.

But Dr Troop said that despite the concerns, the government would not be changing any of its advice to pregnant women, although they will be commissioning more detailed reports.

She said the risks to women from landfills were much less than the damage caused by smoking or alcohol.

"We cannot say there is no risk from landfill sites, but given the small numbers of congenital anomalies and the uncertainties in the findings, we are not changing our advice to pregnant women and they should continue with the recommended ante-natal programme."

But the government said it had fully briefed midwives and GPs to cope with an expected influx of calls from worried mothers.

Study reveals

The study shows:

  • No increase in rates of cancer in those living near the sites
  • A 1% higher than expected risk of congenital abnormalities for those living within 2km of a landfill site - 7% higher for those living near sites containing hazardous waste
  • A 5% greater risk of low birth weight babies, but no higher risk of stillbirths
  • That the risk of birth defects did not increase, and in some cases reduced, after the landfill sites were opened in some areas.
Professor Charles Rodeck, a professor in foetal medicine at University College, London, said women should be more concerned about the impact of smoking on the unborn child than the landfill sites.

"We really have almost no idea of what causes these congenital defects. We have to bear in mind that this study can tell us about the association, but not about the causation.

If a woman said to me 'do I have to move away' I would say no

Professor Charles Rodeck, a professor in foetal medicine at University College, London

"I am greatly reassured by it. If a woman said to me 'do I have to move away' I would say no."

But lead author Paul Elliott, director of the Imperial College's Small Area Health Statistics Unit, which carried out the study said further research was needed.

He said the study looked at the areas surrounding 9,500 landfill sites and studied eight million pregnancies, but that it was not possible to say exactly what was causing the problems on the landfill sites, or eliminate all the socio-economic factors.

The biggest emissions from landfill sites are carbon dioxide and methane, neither of which are linked to birth defects.

Action needed

Under European Union Guidelines, countries have to halve levels of biodegradable waste disposed in landfill sites by 2013 from their 1995 levels.

Mike Childs, campaigns director at Friends of the Earth said: "This study adds to our fears that if you are born near a landfill site you are more likely to be born with a birth defect.

"Although the authors rightly say we need further research, the Government must not use this as an excuse to delay action."

Dr Maureen Baker, of the Royal College of GPs said:"This study would also indicate that we need to conduct further appropriate research to establish whether these sites present a significant and real risk to public health as such a large proportion of the population would appear to live within close proximity of a site."

Dr Peter Bowen-Simkins, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said pregnant women should ensure they had the appropriate scans which would enable doctors to pick up any defects.

Families worried about landfill sites and birth defects are being urged to call the Birth Defects Foundation's confidential helpline on 08700 707020.

The BBC's Richard Bilton
"80 per cent of the population lives within a mile of a tip"
Lord Whitty, Environment minister
"This is part of a much bigger problem"
Steve Lee, Environment Agency
"The increased risk is only a statistical link"
See also:

28 Aug 00 | Scotland
Villagers dig in over waste store
16 Jul 01 | Scotland
New waste law sparks concern
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