A much-delayed government report failed to identify the cause in a spate of arm malformations across France, and despite calls for a more in-depth study, scientists say a definitive explanation may never be found.
Commissioned last year, the 265-page report examined 18 cases of congenital deformities since 2007 in four different regions across the country, studying whether they were linked by a common cause, such as environmental pollution, toxic drug exposure, or genetic damage.
“Scientific studies screening, questionnaires and local environment testing have been conducted by Sante Publique France which has not identified an obvious cause,” the public health body, which had been asked repeatedly about the case by RT, said in its summary.
The commission did admit that there is a “cluster” of cases in the commune of Guidel in the north-western department of Morbihan, where three babies missing arms were born in 22 months. But for the region of Ain in the east of the country, where eight such babies were born between 2009 and 2014, researchers said there was no statistical anomaly or telling pattern.
But parents and activists who were present during the unveiling of the report were not satisfied, with some saying that only a superficial study was conducted, that some cases were excluded due to arbitrary cut-off points, and that the criteria for why some cases were dismissed as statistical noise were never explained.
“I did not expect big news, but I am surprised by the removal of ‘clusters’, it seems scandalous,” Samuel Bernard, the father of a daughter born without a hand in Morbihan, told France Info.
Bernard complained that an independent body was not put in charge, and bemoaned the lack of communication or investigation of specific hypotheses.
Emmanuelle Amar, the director of the malformations register of the Rhone-Alpes region, who helped bring the story to prominence, continues to believe that pesticides or other manmade chemical agents could be to blame.
“Exactly the same deformity, it never happened in the history of deformities,” she said following the report presentation. “The probability that it is linked to chance is more than infinitesimal. We are facing a possible health scandal.”
It is notable that the investigation said all the pregnancies occurred in the vicinity of growing cereal crops.
“We need to bring together specialists to define what kind of studies we need for this type of reporting, but the answer so far is to say: ‘We do not want to know what kind of studies because we do not want to study,’” Amar said. “And that is irresponsible.”
Needle in a haystack
Field tests are poised to continue, with another report expected at the end of the year.
But there are reasons for believing that even with the best of intentions and sufficient resources, answers may be hard to come by.
One of the problems is the sheer rarity of such malformations. They occur on average in 1.7 cases each 10,000 births, and while several more cases look drastic, they could still just be a relatively random blip. Additionally, with so few cases, it gives doctors fewer children to examine among whom shared explanations could be located.
With many of the children now several years old, the evidence for whatever may have affected their mothers during pregnancy may also be long gone, particularly as the researchers don’t actually know what exactly they are looking for.
In addition to that, only 20 percent of France’s population is covered by registries that record deformities, meaning that even the true scale of the problem, or if it even exists, is impossible to ascertain without overhauling the medical records system, and collecting new data from millions.
Isabelle Taymans-Grassin, mother of another child born in Morbihan without a hand, says that while they are not giving up their fight, they despair at the chances of ever proving a certain link or punishing a culprit.
“Accountability will be impossible to find,” she said.
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