Oil-Rich Area Sees Spike in Baby Deaths

13 infant mortalities in Vernal, Utah, raise questions
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 27, 2014 4:53 PM CDT
Spike in Baby Deaths: Caused by Oil Drilling?
This photo taken Feb. 7, 2012 shows the oil fields of the Uintah Basin, southeast of Vernal, Utah.    (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Trent Nelson)

Thirteen baby deaths in one part of Utah last year have some locals and scientists asking whether oil drilling is to blame, the Denver Post reports. Almost 12,000 gas and oil wells add to air pollution in Vernal, Utah—one of the nation's most energy-intensive areas—but many locals don't see a connection. "I don't feel like it has anything to do with oil and gas," says a woman whose two infant boys died in 2011 and 2013. "I just feel like it's a trial I was given." Such disbelief "could be tied" to Uintah County's monthly non-farm wage of $3,963, the state's highest, the Post notes. Donna Young, a Vernal midwife who spotted the dead-baby spike, says many dads of babies she delivers have oil-field jobs. Using obituaries, she calculated that one in every 95.5 county burials in 2010 was a baby; in 2013, it was one in 15.

"I just really, really want to find out what is going on," says Young, who has endured vandalism and received threats since revealing the deaths. She alerted an anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City who says air pollution is "a part of it." The Post notes that chemicals like benzene and toluene are released during drilling and have been shown to cause birth defects. Other research has established a correlation between poor baby health and nearby oil wells, but Colorado's chief medical officer criticized those findings, I-News Network reports. And other factors could be at play, like Uintah County's high smoking, boozing, and obesity rates. The only Vernal physician who responded to the Post put it this way: "I am unwilling to speculate until I see some proof that there actually is an increased rate of infant morbidity or mortality." (More unusual medical news: Doctors are stumped by a boy who's never hungry or thirsty.)

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