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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caren Moon plays with one of her daughters in her home in Vernal. Caren miscarried last November but is pregnant again. She has taken steps to protect the unborn baby from air pollution by installing air and water filters in her home.
Is Utah study of infant deaths designed to fail?
Environment » Tying air pollution to poor birth outcomes in tiny Vernal no small chore, say experts.
First Published May 08 2014 06:19 pm • Last Updated May 08 2014 09:27 pm

An apparent surge in infant deaths in Vernal is raising alarms for environmental groups that question whether air pollution, largely attributable to oil and gas production, is to blame.

Families in this boom town in northeastern Utah are beginning to wonder, too.

At a glance

What’s next?

TriCounty Health Department officials are finalizing the design of a study to determine if Uinta Basin mothers are at high risk for delivering premature, low birth-weight or stillborn babies. The study could take several months, or longer than a year, depending on how it’s framed.

There are currently no plans for a follow-up inquiry, looking at possible environmental causes.

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"I’ve lost one child, and I don’t want to lose another," said 34-year-old Caren Moon, who miscarried in November 2013. "It’s a horrible thing. No matter when in the pregnancy it happens, it’s a loss for the whole family."

Area health officials, with an assist from Utah epidemiologists, are examining data from birth and death certificates and Utah’s fetal death registry to determine whether mothers in the tri-county Uinta Basin region have worse-than-average birth outcomes.

This is a first step, they say, before considering a costly — and, some say, impractical — environmental study.

But some in the community worry the proposed design of the initial data search is flawed.

At issue is the timeliness of the data.

The most recent year of vital statistics available is 2012 — but the suspected uptick in neonatal births happened in 2013.

"My faith in the local health system is damaged a little bit," said Donna Young, a Vernal midwife whose preliminary search of obituaries and mortuary records gave rise to the probe. "I would love to be proven wrong. But it seems the reason this study was set up the way it was is so that in six months time they can come back and say, ‘There’s not a problem,’ and we all go on with our lives."

Young began her obituary research after a mother in her care lost a baby last May — Young’s first stillbirth in 19 years of serving as a midwife. Young documented 11 instances in 2013 when a Vernal-area mother gave birth to a stillborn baby or the baby died within a few days of birth. That year there were two other infant deaths, as well as a fetus lost after more than 20 weeks’ gestation.

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Four of these infants were born to mothers who lived within a block of the same intersection.

Such numbers would push Vernal’s neonatal death rate well above the national average, according to Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment. In 2010, it was about average.

"If they have to wait a couple of months for the 2013 statistics, that’s what they ought to do, rather than leave out the year of greatest concern. Otherwise I’d be wondering what’s the point," said Brian Moench, the physician group’s president.

State epidemiologist Sam LeFevre said 2013 data probably won’t be ready until December. "There’s a 90-day reporting window, so births occurring last winter just barely arrived," he said. "Then we have to validate it, go through and look for errors."

The study’s design rests with the TriCounty Health Department, which is seeking public input.

There’s political pressure from some quarters to abandon the inquiry.

Multiple factors are tied to poor birth outcomes, including barriers to access to care and lifestyle choices, Rodney Anderson, a family doctor in Vernal, said at a TriCounty Health Department meeting Wednesday. "If a meth-head who has had no prenatal care shows up in my clinic, I’m not sure I want that reported in my numbers."

LeFevre believes he can statistically account for such risks, including teen pregnancies and smoking during pregnancy.

Tracing environmental causes is another matter, he said.

Vernal has a population of about 9,800 and in a city that size, you’d have to persuade every pregnant woman to agree to be studied to get the "statistical power" required, LeFevre said. "It would require taking blood, urine, hair and tissue samples and doing genetic tests. It’s very invasive and very expensive, and we’d have to hire someone else to do it."

Even then, warns Seth Lyman, an air-quality specialist at Utah State University’s Energy Dynamics Laboratory, the results may prove "unsatisfying."

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