The mother of five-year-old boy fears she will be forced to move home if she loses a legal action brought against the regulator of a Staffordshire landfill site accused of emitting noxious gases that risk shortening his life.
Lawyers acting on behalf of Rebecca Currie’s son Mathew Richards allege there is a “public health emergency” in the vicinity of Walleys Quarry in Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme, where they claim hydrogen sulphide (H2S) emissions are affecting “hundreds and probably thousands of local people”.
Those representing Mathew in a judicial review application at the High Court in London are seeking a mandatory court order requiring the Environment Agency (EA) to take “effective measures” to remove the risk to his life and his family’s home posed by H2S emissions from the landfill.
His legal team accuse the regulator of “failing” to take measures and being in breach of Mathew’s rights to life and to private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Speaking to the PA news agency on Wednesday, following the first of a two-day hearing, Ms Currie, 41, explained that Mathew was born prematurely at 26 weeks with a chronic lung disease and needed oxygen support for 19 months.
The mother of five described her son’s situation as “horrendous”, adding: “He has nights when he’s coughing, vomiting, choking. He’s got a consistent wet cough, sleepless nights.”
Ms Currie, who said she lives half a mile away from the landfill but previously lived closer, claimed: “It’s the gases and they are literally in my home”.
She said that if the site could be “capped off” then “Mathew’s got a chance of breathing fresh air”.
Asked what might happen if the legal challenge failed, she replied: “I would be forced to move away from my own home because I can’t afford to live like that any more, I can’t put Mathew through it any more.”
Mathew’s legal team say evidence from Dr Ian Sinha, a consultant respiratory paediatrician at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, demonstrates conditions at the landfill site pose a “real and immediate risk” to the five-year-old’s life.
Lawyers’ documents state that Dr Sinha’s evidence indicates the risk is “present and ongoing” and that Mathew is “currently subject to conditions which will shorten his life”.
They argue he has a three to five-year “window of opportunity” to recover from “damage caused by his preterm birth and exposure to pollution” or be at risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Lawyers acting for the EA argue there is not a real and immediate risk to Mathew’s life.
They say Public Health England’s position is that “currently any risk to long-term health is likely to be small, but a risk cannot completely be excluded if exposure were to continue at current levels”.
The EA’s lawyers said the agency, which is monitoring the site’s air-quality levels, had taken “very substantial steps” at the landfill site and “continues to keep matters under review”.
Its focus has included improving “the effectiveness of control and management” of the gas through “a greater surface area of capping, enhanced extraction infrastructure, and sufficient treatment capacity”.
Giving evidence on Wednesday, Dr Sinha said landfill site and H2S studies from Italy and China suggested children living nearby had increased rates of respiratory infections or worse lung function.
Dr Sinha explained that exposure to H2S can impair a person’s immune system, and that “any low-dose exposure will be particularly harmful to children with problems like Mathew”.
He said he was worried about “cumulative damage” allegedly being done to Mathew that could inhibit his recovery from early-life health problems.
“There’s a way for him to recover and it’s not by breathing air that’s polluted,” he said.
Dr Sinha said he was told that when Mathew’s family are not in Silverdale and on holiday he is “running around on the beach” and “playing”, adding: “That’s the life that he needs for his lungs to recover”.
He said that Mathew’s early-life health problems don’t explain “how severe his symptoms and infections are now”.
Professor Sir Colin Berry, a histopathologist and toxicologist, called to give evidence on behalf of site’s operator Walleys Quarry Ltd, said that the studies cited by Dr Sinha pointed to “association” but not evidence of “causation” of problems.
“I think this is all explicable by what happened at birth,” he said of Mathew’s case.
He accepted that people with COPD do have a reduction in their life expectancy, but added of Mathew: “I believe that his pre-term events are a significant part of the explanation of his subsequent illnesses”.
The hearing is due to continue on Thursday and judge Mr Justice Fordham is expected to give his ruling at a later date.