French authorities launched a national investigation into the mysterious birth defects after more than a dozen cases were reported in just three regions. During an initial inquiry, scientists failed to identify a common cause behind the deformities, which have been recorded since 2000. After that probe finished, a further 11 cases were made public in the eastern region of Ain – on top of the eight already recorded in the area – prompting a public health scare and forcing officials to reopen the investigation.
The condition has seen some babies born with no arms at all, while others are missing forearms and hands or fingers.
France’s health minister has suggested the defects could be caused by something in the food, water or air.
Parents, health professionals and campaigners this week met in Paris to discuss the condition.
The defects were first reported in 2000 with cases recorded up to 2014.
The bulk of the deformed babies were born in the rural Ain region, near the Swiss border.
Other cases have been recorded hundreds of miles away in western France, with four in the Morbihan, Brittany area and three in neighbouring Loire-Atlantique.
According to Public Health France, around 150 babies are born each year with limb defects.
The agency said analysis of the cases from the three regions “does not highlight an excess of cases compared to the national average”.
But Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said the public deserved an answer.
Speaking to BFM TV in October, she said: “I want to know, I think all of France wants to know.
“It could be an environmental factor. Maybe it is due to what these women ate, drank or breathed in.”
She explained the new inquiry will include input from the health agency as well as the sanitation, food and environment agency.
She said: “It is very complicated, we need to investigate the history of families in cases which sometimes date back ten years or more.”
Epidemiologist Emmanuelle Amar, who first revealed the birth defects in Ain, told Reuters the only thing mothers of the affected babies had in common was that they lived in cereal-growing areas amid fields of corn and sunflower.
She said most of the defects had been reported between 2009 and 2014 and that since then there had been no new cases.
Ms Amar criticised the health ministry’s initial findings and said congenital defects in the affected regions had been way higher than what would normally be expected.
She said: “It is a terrible tragedy for the families.”