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Advocates question whether baby deaths in Vernal are linked to pollution

Published: Wednesday, May 7 2014 4:13 p.m. MDT

The string of brief and poignant baby obituaries from the Vernal area in 2013 is causing clean air advocates to question if pollution from oil and gas production is helping to write their fate.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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VERNAL — The string of brief and poignant baby obituaries from the Vernal area in 2013 is causing clean air advocates to question if pollution from oil and gas production is helping to write their fate.

The Utah Department of Health has agreed to launch a study to determine if there is an inordinate number of adverse birth outcomes in the Vernal area — beyond what would be a typical rate for a population that size.

A community meeting at the Tri County Health Department is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the issue, which was raised by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a local midwife.

"We want to determine whether there is an issue or not," said health department spokesman Tom Hudachko. "It is not designed to determine cause and effect."

Hudachko said the study is expected to take about four months and will assess the number of low-birth weight babies, infant mortality such as still births and the incidences in which babies are small for their gestational age.

"Those are the outcomes we are going to take a look at," he said. "Most of that data we can get through birth records and conduct an analysis to determine if there are outcomes occurring at a rate that would exceed what we would expect based on our statewide average."

Dr. Brian Moench said his group went back through the records starting in 2010 and, in the last year, found that the numbers had shot up to 15 deaths in a year.

"It is concerning enough that it certainly needs to be addressed with earnestness, with objectivity and with some real serious intent to find out exactly what is going on," he said.

Given the Uintah Basin's serious wintertime ozone pollution problems linked to oil and gas activity and the rampant increase in industry production, Moench said, he believes there is a correlation between the air pollution levels and adverse birth outcomes.

"It does seem very likely to be related to the explosion of the oil and gas industry and all the pollution," he said.

Moench said still births and perinatal mortality in Vernal was six times the national average in 2013, but Hudachko cautioned that a timeframe longer than 12 months should be weighed when making any conclusions.

"We don't want to look at one year and assume there is a pattern," he said.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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