Page last updated at 13:56 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 14:56 UK

Families win birth defect battle

Simone Atkinson: 'They called me four-fingered freak'

Families who claim their children were born with defects caused by exposure to toxic waste in Northamptonshire have won a legal battle at the High Court.

They sued Corby Borough Council, saying deformities to hands and feet were due to mothers being exposed to a "soup of toxic materials" between 1985 and 1999.

The council was found negligent over work to reclaim a steel plant. It said it was "disappointed" at the ruling.

The judge found in favour of 16 of the 18 claimants.

Corby Borough Council chief executive Chris Mallender said: "Our position has always been that there was no link between the reclamation work that was carried out in Corby in past decades and these children's birth defects. That is still our position."

The case relates to birth defects in 18 people with links to Corby aged between nine and 22.

'Extensively negligent'

However, Mr Justice Akenhead said his ruling on liability did not cover the two youngest claimants.

In his judgement, he said there was a "statistically significant" cluster of birth defects between 1989 and 1999.

Families with children suffering from birth defects
Mothers told the court they lived in or visited Corby regularly while pregnant

He said: "There was an extended period between 1983 and August 1997 in which Corby Borough Council was extensively negligent in its control and management of the sites which they acquired from British Steel and otherwise used.

"Corby Borough Council is liable in public nuisance, negligence and breach of statutory duty, obviously subject to it being established in later proceedings by individual claimants that their particular conditions were actually caused by the defaults identified in this judgment."

Some of those affected have missing or underdeveloped fingers and three have deformities on their feet.

One of the children involved, Dylan South, said: "I can't do some things that other kids are doing, I can't run."

'Constant pain'

His mother, Audrey Barfield, discovered her son had a deformity when she had her 18-week scan while pregnant.

She said: "I found out that his foot was all bent over. He had two operations, and it wasn't until he was older that we realised that his leg was already a lot shorter, but we didn't realise the effect it was going to have on his whole leg."

Simone Atkinson was born with fingers missing from both hands.

She said: "Every day I get constant pain... it irritates me a lot but I just have to live with it and have done for 20 years.

For both local authorities and developers alike this is a significant concern
Corby Council's legal representatives
Berrymans Lace Mawer

"I got bullied quite a lot, called four-fingered freak - even now there's things I get called from ex-partners. But you just live with it."

The 680-acre British Steel works in the town closed in 1980 with the loss of 10,000 jobs.

Its buildings were gradually demolished, with waste removed to a quarry to the north of the site.

The mothers told the court how they either lived in or regularly visited Corby while pregnant.

Some said in evidence that the town seemed "dusty" or "dirty".

David Wilby QC told Mr Justice Aikenhead the disabilities were caused when the women ingested or inhaled toxic substances.

'Head in the sand'

Des Collins, the solicitor for the families, said after the ruling: "It was clear at all times that the local authority had made a complete mess of this land reclamation programme.

"They put their head in the sand. Not only did they cause these birth defects but they made the children suffer for ten years in this fight, which was totally unnecessary."

Mr Mallender said the council recognised mistakes were made and accepted some of the criticism, but said it had still not seen evidence to confirm a causal link between the work and the defects.

The council's legal representatives Berrymans Lace Mawer said they were surprised by the findings of the court.

Family solicitor Des Collins: "They made the children suffer for 10 years"

In a statement, they said there were more than 400 pages of judgement to review and that the council would be considering its position.

The statement said: "The judge concluded that this contamination affected pregnant women.

"A child, so affected, has 21 years from birth to make a claim and thus any work since the late 1980s which has not met the standard of care indicated in this judgment could be challenged in this way.

"For both local authorities and developers alike this is a significant concern because the standard of care has been drawn very highly, and could cause a rethink of the way that reclamation is carried out in the UK, even though the facts of the case are historic."

Following the judgement, Mr Wilby, leading counsel for the claimant children, said: "The defendant has throughout strenuously denied any fault and relied heavily on its expert witnesses to justify its conduct.

"However, without exception, the judge preferred the evidence of the expert witnesses called by the claimants."



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SEE ALSO
Pregnant woman 'ingested toxins'
25 Feb 09 |  Northamptonshire
Toxic defect link a 'delusion'
17 Feb 09 |  Northamptonshire
Birth defects court case starts
16 Feb 09 |  Northamptonshire
High Court to hear defects claims
14 Sep 05 |  Northamptonshire

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