Inquiry ordered into birth defects linked to pollution

Chris Benfield A MAJOR investigation has been ordered into links between pollution and clusters of birth defects which have been identified in areas as different as inner-city Sheffield and rural North Yorkshire.

It is the first official acknowledgement that the curious pattern of abnormal births - revealed in the Yorkshire Post - might be a cause for concern.

The Government pollution watchdog the Health Protection Agency (HPA) confirmed yesterday there were anomalies which needed explaining and that birth defects would be included in national research.

It will pay particular attention to the possibility of poisoning from waste dumps such as the tip at Parkwood, in the heart of Burngreave, Sheffield, which takes ash from the equally controversial city rubbish incinerator.

Birth abnormalities, childhood cancers, low birth weight and asthma, will be among the areas for investigation.

The HPA, a semi-independent government-funded body, has been investigating possible links between pollution and illness in the West Midlands.

Dr Patrick Saunders, who runs the research programme concerned, said: "The West Midlands pilot mapped data on potential sources of environmental contamination and data on hospital admissions and registrations for diseases such as lung cancer. This enabled possible connections between clusters of disease and possible sites of contamination to be investigated. While the system doesn't prove a link, it does identify areas that need further detailed investigation.

"Over the next year, this pilot study will be further extended to include Wales and will also be focusing on other conditions."

Dr Saunders said it could be that known factors cause the health problems, but added: "You cannot rule out the possibility that some, at least, is due to environmental exposure. There are issues we need to investigate further - in particular, a small but consistent link between land-fill sites and congenital abnormalities."

Their biggest problem is a lack of records directly measuring poisoning by pollution.

Two weeks ago, the Yorkshire Post reported on work by Dick van Steenis, a former GP who has become an expert on air-borne pollution, and his assistant, Michael Ryan, a former civil engineer who lost two children to mysterious illnesses.

Their figures suggested Mid Devon had a particularly high risk of birth defects and so did most of Wales. Sheffield and North East Lincolnshire were hot-spots and so was the area covered by the health authority for Scarborough, Whitby and Ryedale. Other health indicators, like cancer and asthma statistics, showed similar patterns.

Sheffield had 40 defects per thousand babies overall. North East Lincolnshire had 37 per thousand, 10 times the rate for Wakefield.

Mr Van Steenis and Mr Ryan said agricultural chemicals and air-borne pollution, travelling on the wind, could be poisoning rural areas in the same way that incinerators, landfill sites, traffic fumes and industry, combine to create problems in some city areas.

They were supported by Malcolm Hooper, a Sunderland University professor specialising in the effects of chemicals on health.

Prof Hooper said yesterday: "If a government agency has recognised the possible hazards of land-fill sites and other discharges from industrial processes, that is a first. It is about time and it is very good news."