- Associated Press - Saturday, May 10, 2014

VERNAL, Utah (AP) - Utah health officials are pledging to investigate claims that stillbirths are rising in an eastern Utah community home to a boom in gas and oil development.

Industrial smog is ruining a climbing rate of pregnancies in the Uinta Basin, activists said.

But researchers and health officials said they aren’t ready to draw the link. They first need to study whether the infant death rate is indeed rising in Vernal, they said.

Midwife Donna Young said a series of fresh graves points to the troubling trend.

“I thought, there has to be a problem here, so many deaths in such a small community,” she said.

Young said she has sifted through obituaries and mortuary records documenting a climbing number of infant deaths in the city of 9,800 about 175 miles east of Salt Lake City.

Since 2010, neonatal deaths there have surged from about average to six times the national level in 2013, Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment contended.

The local health department and state epidemiologist said they plan to investigate. But they are making it clear: The first round of research won’t try to determine whether increased development is to blame.

“This is not an air-quality study. This is not a water-quality study,” Joseph Shaffer, director of the TriCounty Health Department, said in a meeting Wednesday.

The study sponsored by the state health department will consider premature deliveries and low birth weights in addition to stillbirths, state epidemiologist Sam LeFevre said.

Researchers will try to account for risk factors including teenage pregnancy and smoking during pregnancy. LeFevre expects the study to be completed in March.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1uK8nz2) it would be the first such study in Utah.

Vernal is transforming as new drilling technologies uncover the Uinta Basin’s hydrocarbon riches.

Ozone pollution, usually a summertime problem, plagues the Uintah Basin in winter, sometimes spiking pollution to unhealthy levels.

Experts caution that a surge in bad birth outcomes could be nothing more than bad luck.

The small numbers make it difficult to reach definitive conclusions, said Bob Silver, a University of Utah professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

A variety of factors can lead to neonatal deaths, Silver said, but he added that any trend found in a study would warrant a state investigation.

Melanie Hoem, a client of Young’s who gave birth to a stillborn, told The Salt Lake Tribune she was glad to hear about the planned research she thinks could help save heartache for families.

Tests revealed her baby to be seemingly healthy, Hoem said. “They just couldn’t get a heartbeat,” she said.

Young asked Ashley Regional Medical Center staff if they’d noticed an uptick in stillbirths.

The center threatened legal action, asserting she was spreading false information about the facility. Infant mortality rates are not publicly reported, Ashley Regional spokeswoman Debbie Spafford said.

“I really believe there’s a solution,” Young said, “and I don’t think we have to destroy the oil and gas industry.”

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