By Geert De Clercq

PARIS (Reuters) – France has launched a nationwide investigation into why some two dozen babies have been born without hands or arms in a handful of rural areas since 2000 after several new cases were reported this week, the health minister said on Wednesday.

A separate investigation has also been opened into reports that calves and possibly chickens have been born without limbs in the same three heavily agricultural areas, an official told Reuters.

Public health agency Santé Publique France said it had identified 11 additional cases of babies born with limb defects between 2000 and 2014 in the rural Ain department of eastern France, near the Swiss border, where seven cases were already reported in 2009-14.

There have also been malformed births in two departments in western France: four in the Morbihan, Brittany area between 2011 to 2013, and three in neighboring Loire-Atlantique in 2007 and 2008. Ain and Morbihan are several hundred kilometers apart.

The reports have raised alarm among the French public that some kind of toxin in food, water or air could be responsible.

“I want to know, I think all of France wants to know,” Health Minister Agnès Buzyn told BFM TV. “It could be an environmental factor. Maybe it is due to what these women ate, drank or breathed in.”

An initial inquiry in early October found the incidence of limb defects in the affected regions to be no greater than elsewhere in the country, but now the probe has been widened.

The new inquiry will be run jointly by the health agency and the sanitation, food and environment agency, Buzyn said.

“It is very complicated, we need to investigate the history of families in cases which sometimes date back ten years or more,” she said.

First conclusions were due by Jan. 31, and a full report by June.

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. She criticized the health ministry’s initial findings and said congenital defects in the affected regions had been way higher than what would normally be expected.

“It is a terrible tragedy for the families,” said Amar.

The parents of a girl born without forearms in the village of Guidel, in the Morbihan, said the inquiry should focus on the 2011-13 period, when most of the cases appeared.

“No point in looking ahead. Focus on what happened then,” the girl’s father Samuel Bernard told BFM TV earlier this month.

Amar said that in the Ain region farmers had also reported calves being born without tails and without flanks.

An official at the national food safety agency Anses told Reuters it had now opened a separate investigation into legless calves in the three same regions. Poultry may also be investigated as there are suspicions about chickens being affected.

Hospital registries show limb defects occur in 1.7 of every 10,000 births, or about 150 cases per year in France. Birth defects can have multiple causes, including chromosome disorders, drug use or exposure to toxic substances.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, about 10,000 babies worldwide were born with malformed or missing limbs after their mothers received the drug thalidomide to treat morning sickness.

(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet, Sybille de la Hamaide and Lucien Libert in Paris; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Luke Baker and Richard Balmforth)