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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.

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The Uinta Basin’s wintertime pollution sometimes reaches unhealthy levels. Ozone concentrations sometimes rival summertime levels in the nation’s most polluted cities, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

But large cities are better testing grounds by virtue of their size, Lyman argues.

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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He and other researchers recently set out to document spikes in asthma hospitalizations at Vernal’s Ashley Regional Medical Center around bad-air days.

"We found they’re probably not related, but the data set was too small and the findings inconclusive," he said. "We know from other research that respiratory illnesses and deaths are related to poor air quality. But replicating those findings in our tiny basin is a whole other story."

Moench counters that birth studies have been done on populations in Colorado and Pennsylvania that are no bigger than Vernal, and asks, "Why can’t Utah do the same?"

One study of babies born to mothers living within 10 miles of fracking wells in rural Colorado found them to be at greater risk of congenital heart defects and neural tube defects.

A study of Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 showed infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of fracking are more likely to be born underweight and with health problems.

"There are other ways you can approach this. You could put air monitors at the intersection, the focal point where these deaths occurred," said Moench, noting there’s currently only one monitor in the area. "This is primarily a matter of will and money, not a matter of scientific obstacles."

Locally produced research is important for informing policy decisions, Moench believes. "The health consequences out there, which go far beyond infant mortality, should be understood if oil and gas drilling is going to be the continued basis of economic viability."

Some families agree. "We’re pro-oil," said Caren Moon’s husband, Ben, a Gilsonite miner. "With the growing population, increased cars and traffic, you can’t blame air pollution on industry emissions."

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But he said, "We have to acknowledge there is a problem if we’re going to make it better."

One easy fix would be for Vernal to impose emissions standards on vehicles, he said.

Caren Moon, meanwhile, is pregnant again and taking steps to protect the family. She monitors the air-quality alerts and keeps the kids inside on bad-air days. The family has installed air and water filters in their home.

Her miscarriage happened in November, early in her prior pregnancy, and might have had nothing to do with the "yucky air," she said. "We may never know. But it doesn’t hurt to ask the question."


Twitter: @KStewart4Trib

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