France Opens National Investigation to Find Cause of Spike in Missing Limb Births

November 1, 2018 Updated: September 30, 2019

France has opened a second investigation into why an increasing number of babies in three different regions have been born without arms or hands.

More than a dozen children were discovered to be missing arms, hands, or fingers in the region of Ain near the Swiss border, as well as in Brittany, and Loire-Atlantique on the north-west coast.

Two weeks ago, an initial inquiry failed to establish a cause for the birth defects. Now, after a further 11 cases have been found in Ain, French authorities have started a new probe.

The lack of an explanation, coupled with extensive media coverage, had prompted Health Minister Agnès Buzyn to promise a further investigation.

Speaking on French television on Oct. 31, Buzyn said the new national inquiry would be led by her health ministry, with the results to be published in January.

“I think all of France wants to know,” she said, the BBC reported. “We don’t want to rule anything out. Perhaps it’s do with the environment, or something they ate, or something they drank. Perhaps it’s what they breathed—right now, I just don’t know.”

Ain had seven cases between 2009 and 2014, Brittany had four between 2011 and 2013, and Loire-Atlantique had three in 2007 and 2008.

Limbs Fail to Form During Pregnancy

The cases were first noticed by the regional register for birth defects, Remera, following local doctors raising the alarm. The condition involves the upper limbs of a fetus failing to form properly during pregnancy, with some instances going undetected, even on ultrasound.

There has been speculation that the condition may have been caused by pesticides because all the cases in Ain are within an 11-mile radius of the village of Druillat. Other potential causes could be parental diet or drug use, alcohol, or genetics, but so far, no pattern among the mothers has been found.

The first inquiry was led by state health agency Santé Publique France and concluded that the abnormalities were most likely “down to chance.”

There was no “common exposure” to substances found, the agency said, and the inquiry was closed after the number of abnormal births in Ain was found to not be above average.

The agency said in a statement in early October, “The absence of a hypothesis of a possible common cause does not make it possible to hold further investigations.”

50 Times the Expected Level

However, other researchers said the number of births with this defect in Ain was more than 50 times the expected level.

Dr. Elizabeth Gnansia, chair of the scientific committee in Ain’s health center, told the BBC that that level of concentration was significant.

A premature baby's foot
A premature baby’s foot at the Argenteuil hospital in the suburbs of Paris on July 22, 2013. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

“Let’s imagine they are born between 2009 and 2014, which is five years, can you imagine that in a small rural school seven infants are in the same school with a type of amputation of forearm?” she said. “We don’t need statistics for that. It’s highly significant. It’s 50 times what you expect.”

The new cases in Ain were brought to light only after a deeper analysis of hospital databases.

Investigations have been hampered by the lack of a national register of birth deformities, and that such monitoring that exists only covered 19 percent of births in France.

“These malformations are very rare, but also very specific. There is something, some product, that is cutting the limbs at the time the embryo is developing. We must search for it,” Emmanuelle Amar, the director of Remera, told The Guardian.

Following the first inquiry, member of the European parliament Yannick Jadot told RTL radio that he was “absolutely scandalized.”

“We have never wanted to know in France. We don’t want to do epidemiology studies around [waste] incinerators, around nuclear power stations, or on pesticides, because, once again, we don’t want to know.”

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