- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 18, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - More stillbirths have been reported in eastern Utah communities with booming gas and oil development, but officials didn’t explain the uptick and said they can’t tell if it’s a trend, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Utah Department of Health study shows that the 2013 stillbirth rate in Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties was 5.9 per 1,000 live births, the highest rate for the region since 1994.

Researchers said it’s not a big enough jump to indicate a trend in the area, which had a population of about 54,000 in 2013.

“We’re working with a really small population, and when you have a small population, you have a lot of variability,” said Sam LeFevre, an epidemiologist with the department and the lead author of the study. “You can see a little bit of a trend, but whether that’s a real trend or not, I don’t know.”

The department reviewed birth records in the region after a midwife from the town of Vernal reported seeing more stillbirths and infant deaths and questioned whether there might be a link to pollution stemming from the booming energy development.

The Uinta Basin has been plagued by ozone pollution and other environmental concerns.

After analyzing birth data, researchers couldn’t draw any conclusions about whether environmental concerns or something else may be causing the uptick, LeFevre said.

A much more detailed and time consuming study of people living in the area would be required to draw any conclusions, he said. Researchers would need to analyze pollution rates, sexual behavior, eating habits and other factors.

Overall, the stillbirth rate in the region remained below the rate seen across Utah over the past two decades, according to the study.

“We don’t see it as being a huge problem that people need to get excited about,” LeFevre said, noting that there are other regions of Utah with higher rates of complications like low birth weight babies, smaller than expected babies, or stillbirths.

The three eastern Utah counties have a higher rate of risk factors such as teenage pregnancies, smoking during pregnancy and obesity, and researchers tried to factor those into their calculations.

Bob Silver, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, said that because the rates for the region aren’t that different from the rest of the state once those risk factors are accounted for, the study doesn’t seem to suggest there’s an environmental issue at play.

“I think Utahns should be reassured by that,” Silver said.

Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the Uinta Basin rates should be compared with national rates, not statewide rates, because most of Utah’s population lives along the Wasatch front, where there are other air pollution problems.

LeFevre recommends that local health officials follow up in two years and four years to see if there is a trend.

Midwife Donna Young began questioning two years ago whether something in the environment could be causing a spike in infant deaths. She became alarmed in May 2013 after delivering the first stillborn baby in her 19 years as midwife.

She tracked obituaries and mortuary records, documenting an increasing number of infant deaths in Vernal, a city of 9,800 about 175 miles east of Salt Lake City.

Young would like to see an objective, thorough study conducted by someone outside Utah to ensure it’s free from concerns about interfering with the energy business.

“I believe with all my heart that there is a solution to whatever’s causing the problem that is economically sound that will not damage the economy,” Young said.

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