UK families win fight over birth defects

July 29, 2009 7:50:05 AM PDT
Britain's High Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of a group of young people, born with deformed hands and feet, who say pollution from a former steelworks contributed to their disabilities. Eighteen claimants aged between 9 and 22 sued a local authority, claiming their pregnant mothers were exposed to a stew of airborne toxins from the disused British Steel plant at Corby in central England.

A judge ruled that Corby Borough Council was liable for the deformities in all but two of the cases.

The huge steel plant, one of the largest in western Europe, closed in 1980 and the 680-acre (275 hectare) site was redeveloped.

The council denies there is any link between the dismantling of the plant and cleanup of the contaminated land, and birth defects in local children, including missing fingers and deformed hands and feet.

Judge Robert Akenhead, however, said there was a a "statistically significant" cluster of birth defects in Corby between 1989 and 1999 that could have been caused by toxins on the steelworks site.

The judge ruled that the council was guilty of "negligence and breach of statutory duty" to residents during the cleanup operation.

Akenhead said the negligence "led to the extensive dispersal of contaminated mud and dust over public areas of Corby and into and over private homes, with the result that the contaminants could realistically have caused the types of birth defects of which complaint has been made by the claimants."

The judge said the issue of whether the air pollution did in fact cause the defects would be decided later.

Outside court Audrey Barfield, whose 13-year-old son Dylan South is among the claimants, said she was "absolutely over the moon" at the ruling.

"We knew that we were right," said Barfield, whose son had to undergo daily physiotherapy on his deformed foot for the first five years of his life and still experiences pain.

"We still have a long drawn-out process to go through. We will have to see where we go from here," Barfield said.

Corby Council chief executive Chris Mallender said he was "very disappointed and very surprised" by the verdict.

"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," he said. "That is still our position."

He said the council would take time to consider its next move.

"We need time to reflect on this. We're not saying that we will appeal, we will not say that we will not accept the judgment," he said.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Des Collins, called on the council to compensate the families as soon as possible.