Weedkiller linked to birth defects

The Sunday Times Published: 29 April 2012 Lois Rogers

A GROUP of British women whose children were born with the same birth defect believe it may be linked to a banned weedkiller which is the subject of a multi-million dollar lawsuit in America championed by Erin Brockovich.

At least nine babies born to mothers living within a few hundred yards of each other in Northfleet, Kent, have suffered gastroschisis, a condition that causes the digestive system to grow outside the abdomen. Gastroschisis affects one in every 7,000 babies. Of those, 10% die before or shortly after birth.

The women in Kent think atrazine, a toxic chemical used widely as a herbicide but banned by the European Union in 2004, could be to blame for the cluster of cases.

In America, Brockovich, the campaigner whose efforts to secure a $333m (£205m) payout to victims of a water pollution scandal featured in the film starring Julia Roberts, is championing the cause of those who want atrazine’s manufacturers to subsidise the removal of the chemical from water supplies.

US research has established a link between exposure to atrazine and an increased prevalence of gastroschisis.

During a study of ground-water in northwest Kent in 2008, tests carried out at a site less than one mile from a street with 194 houses in Northfleet, where most of the cases have occurred, revealed dangerous levels of atrazine.

Of 32 test sites, it was one of only two where levels exceeded recommended limits and was the site closest to the street.

Sonia Dalton, 35, whose daughter Mikka spent five weeks in intensive care after being born with the condition in January 2009, and who still requires daily medication, said: “We are really angry about this. Somebody has to be responsible, but at the moment we are just being pushed around. We think this weedkiller in the water is the reason that all our babies have been affected.”

Juliet Green, 39, lives a few doors away from Dalton. Her daughter Courtney, 10, suffers complications related to gastroschisis. She has been tube fed for much of her life and suffers from internal bleeding which requires regular transfusions.

Green’s grandson, born to her daughter Natalie Margetson, 22, has also been affected by gastroschisis. The condition is not hereditary.

“It is too late to do anything for our children. My daughter knows no other life but being in and out of hospital. But I was devastated when my daughter’s little boy was affected,” said Green.

“We need to find out what’s causing this to stop other children suffering.”

In the most recent case, Chantelle Stevens, 23, who lives in the same street, gave birth two weeks ago to Lily who has gastroschisis. She remains in intensive care.

Stella Coffee, 38, who lives nearby, discovered during a pre-natal scan that her baby, due in June, has the condition.

Stuart Gillings, Dalton’s lawyer, said: “Clearly there is some environmental factor affecting these babies and we need to know what it is.”

Atrazine has been in use for more than 50 years and is produced by several companies around the world under various trade names. Manufacturers insist it is entirely safe.

However, it was banned by the EU in 2004 amid concerns that it could contaminate ground-water and drinking supplies. To allow companies to use up their stockpiles, the ban did not come into force in Britain until 2007.

Mark Davenport, professor of paediatric surgery at King’s College Hospital in London, has operated on several babies from the Northfleet cluster.

“We only recently discovered these mothers were such close neighbours. This group is definitely statistically significant and should be investigated. The link with an environmental cause is a reasonable hypothesis,” he said. He agreed atrazine was one possible cause.

The number of cases of gastroschisis in Britain is not recorded and birth defect registers cover only half of the country. The British Isles Network of Congenital Anomaly Registers said that the Department of Health was examining plans to expand the register.

Southern Water, which supplies the Northfleet area, acknowledged that atrazine had been found in 2008 but said tap water came from a variety of sources and any pollutant would be heavily diluted.

Medway health authority, which launched an investigation into the Northfleet cases in February, said it was examining whether the cluster was exceptional and what, if any, causes lay behind it.

“This detailed process can be very complicated and may take a long time but we have kept the women updated with the team’s progress,” it said.

In America, Brockovich will shortly release a documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, which will accuse the US Environmental Protection Agency of failing to guard the public from the effects of atrazine and other pollutants.

Syngenta, the maker of atrazine in Britain, said the company recognised the distress suffered by the gastroschisis-affected families, but added: “There is no proven link between atrazine and these defects. Atrazine does not cause developmental abnormalities. It is one of the most closely examined crop protection products in the world. Over the past 50 years it has undergone nearly 7,000 scientific studies.”