Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 15:08 UK

The battle for birth defects answers

By Colette McBeth
BBC News

Mandy Wright
Mrs Wright says the battle is about 'finding answers'

It is a case that has made legal history in the UK. Sixteen families have successfully proved a link between their children's deformities and exposure to poisonous waste.

They claimed a clean-up of the steelworks in Corby in Northamptonshire was so badly handled it exposed pregnant mothers to toxins which harmed their unborn children.

Now they could be in line for millions of pounds of damages.

When Mandy Wright's son Curtis was born with no fingers on one hand she believed it was "one of those things that nature throws at you".

Five months later, her friend Susan McIntyre called. She had just given birth to her second son, Connor.

"She said, 'You're never going to believe this but Connor has the same deformity.'"

Connor, too, had been born with no fingers on his left hand. At the time it seemed like a strange coincidence, but later Mandy realised it was far more significant.

Clean-up

When Connor was still a baby, Susan happened to meet another woman while their sons were in hospital in Leeds undergoing corrective surgery.

Her name was Joy Shatford and her baby son Daniel had no fingers on his left hand either. She didn't live in Corby like Mandy and Susan, but she drove there every day.

That was 1996. Since then that group of three families has become 18 - though two cases were thrown out by the High Court judge.

All of their children were born with similar upper limb defects. All have links to the town of Corby. All were born within the same 15-year period.

For a decade, the families have claimed these deformities were not a coincidence within the town, but caused by what went on there: the clean-up of the old steelworks.

The vast steelworks once dominated Corby's landscape, employing more than 10,000 people and covering a site of 700 acres.

Corby steel works before it closed
The Corby steelworks was among the largest in western Europe

When they closed in 1980, the town was devastated. Unemployment was sky-high. The council needed to replace old industry with new, and quickly. But first it had to clean up hundreds of acres of contaminated land the steelworks left behind.

Over the next 15 years, the buildings were demolished and the site reclaimed in parcels of land which involved the removal of waste, steel dust and slag to a quarry.

It was a dirty, dusty operation. And all of the 18 mothers came into contact with that dirt in one way or another when they were pregnant.

One worked as a security guard next to a reclamation site, another ran a pub where site workers would come every day, their clothes caked in dust. Mandy Wright remembers returning home dirty from everyday errands.

"I remember if you went down to the Sunday market to do your shop you'd come back and your shoes would be covered in a fine orange dust," she said.

'No expertise'

What none of the mothers realised at the time was that the council contractors employed to clean up those sites had little expertise in dealing with toxic waste, or that the toxic waste could harm their unborn children.

The families' solicitor Des Collins said: "There can be little doubt that this job was handled appallingly badly even by the standards of the 80s and 90s.

"Time and again it has been shown that the council officers responsible for this work simply didn't have a clue what they were doing. They had no expertise in dealing with toxic waste."

Mr Collins also says the rate of birth defects in Corby during the time of the clean-up was 300% higher than in the surrounding area. It is, he says, "an astounding figure".

It's about answers. I want answers to say to my son this is why your hand looks like this
Mandy Wright

Corby Borough Council has always disputed that claim, and maintained the reclamation work was a huge success, bringing jobs and investment to a town on its knees.

It investigated the families' claims but found no evidence of a link between the deformities and the clean-up. But its Chief Executive Chris Mallender said if the court found a link their attitude might change.

"We've always said that if can be established that it's due to the negligence of the council and its contractors then we should do the honourable thing and look to settle."

Now, after a three-month court case a link has been established. So where does that leave the families?

They could potentially be in line to share damages of up to £5m. But if the council doesn't settle they could also find themselves back at court proving individual cases.

Mrs Wright says it is not about the money.

"It's about answers. I want answers to say to my son, this is why your hand looks like this. But Curtis has said from an early age that money will not give him his hand back," she said.

Curtis added: "It doesn't really change things. It's the fact that it's nice to know that it wasn't just a fluke and this doesn't happen on a daily basis.

"It makes me and the other kids think, well, we know the answer now and we're living our lives better for it."



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