Air pollution from oil and gas drilling is being blamed for a significant increase in the number of infant deaths in Uintah County, Utah – a controversy that some say the industry is trying to cover up.
In 2000, before the fracking boom, one in 95.5 burials in Uintah County was a baby. In 2011, it was one in 53; in 2012, one in 39.7; and in 2013, a shocking one in 15, The Denver Post reported.
“Suffice it to say that air pollution from drilling is a part of it,” said Dr. Brian Moench, the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. There are around 12,000 oil and gas wells in Uintah County, which sits in northeastern Utah. Hundreds of new wells have been fracked in the region in recent years.
The number of infant deaths in Uintah County is six times the national average, The Post reported. The prevailing theory is that chemicals released from drilling and fracking harm the development of babies in the womb. Moench cited a number of studies that show toxic chemicals released by drilling can cross the placental barrier in a mother’s womb and cause heart, brain and spinal defects.
Worse Air Pollution than Los Angeles
“I suspect it is real — that there is a relationship,” said Susan Nagel, Ph.D., a University of Missouri School of Medicine researcher who has studied how fracking chemicals affect hormones. Air pollution is a concern around Vernal, the county’s largest city, which has a higher level of toxic ozone in its air during the winter than the city of Los Angeles, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
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A recent NOAA study found that chemicals released by fracking can create levels of ozone that exceed federal health standards. The ozone pollution is created when chemicals from fracking interact with sunlight. Among other things, NOAA researchers found that ozone levels in Ouray, Utah, exceeded national air standards 49 times in 2013.
The high level of baby deaths in Uintah County was not uncovered by the local health department. Instead, it was discovered by a local midwife named Donna Young who examined obituaries in local newspapers.
After she reported the findings, Young’s property was vandalized and she received threats, The Denver Post reported. Young thinks she was threatened because local residents do not want to lose high paying oil industry jobs. The state of Utah is now looking into the deaths.
Deaths Reported in Colorado, Too
A similar rash of infant deaths was reported by midwives in Garfield County, Colorado, in 2013. Like Uintah County, Garfield County is in the midst of an oil and gas boom. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment investigated the matter and determined there was no link between drilling and fetal problems.
The department studied 22 cases of defects in fetuses discovered by prenatal ultrasounds of fetuses at two Glenwood Springs, Colorado, clinics, The Denver Post reported.
But the study was incomplete because it did not take into account a large leak of hydrocarbons from a well near Parachute, Colorado, in 2012 and 2013, Bo Arrington of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance told The Post.
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“This was significant but it was overlooked in the study,” Arrington said of the leak of 40,000 gallons of toxic chemicals into the air. “I don’t think they’ve answered the important question about this.”
How Fracking Chemicals could Harm Babies
Nagel believes that the toxic chemicals released by fracking disrupt the endocrine or hormonal system of a developing fetus. She is conducting an experiment in which she is exposing pregnant mice to fracking fluids.
“Mechanistically, from what we know about endocrine-disrupting chemicals, it is highly plausible,” Nagel said of fracking liquids.
Not everybody is convinced by Nagel and Moench’s arguments.
“I think we pretty clearly have an air-quality problem, but we try not to freak out,” Seth Lyman, an air quality researcher at Utah State University, told The Post. “But I think there is a low probability (that) air quality is bad enough to impact infant mortality.”
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