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truthout: Dead Babies and Utah’s Carbon Bomb

Op-Ed by Dr Brian Moench, Truthout:

A sudden and extreme spike in neonatal mortality in Utah’s rural Uinta Basin is most probably related to the toxic air pollution related to the fossil fuel drilling/fracking frenzy in Eastern Utah. And the local poobahs want to kill the messenger.

Donna Young is a midwife in Vernal, Utah, with 20 years experience managing home births in Idaho and Utah. She lives in the Uinta Basin, the heart of the fossil fuel drilling/fracking frenzy in Eastern Utah. On May 8, 2013, she had her first stillbirth. At the funeral service a few days later, she noted what seemed like an extraordinary number of infant graves with recent dates at the cemetery. She decided to investigate.

She didn’t get any help from local authorities, but eventually information gleaned from obituaries and mortuaries revealed 12 cases of neonatal mortality (most of them stillborn, or death shortly after birth), in 2013. Looking back to 2010 revealed a modest upward trend, but then a huge spike in 2013. This is sparsely populated rural Utah. Vernal is a town of fewer than 10,000 people. But per capita, this is a neonatal mortality six times the national average. It is actually worse than it appears. National infant mortality rates have been dropping slowly and steadily for almost 50 years, including about a 10 to 15 percent drop in the last decade. Furthermore, most of Utah is about 50 percent Mormon, so the rate of drinking and smoking is less than the national average throughout the state. The minority population in rural Utah, like Vernal, is very low, and the percentage of Mormons is even higher, both of which should lower the infant mortality rates, all other things being equal

What is going on in Utah’s Uinta Basin to explain newborn babies dying? An abrupt surge in teenage mothers, drug, alcohol use? No evidence of that. Is there a genetic explanation? Genes don’t change that quickly. Is there a sudden onset of medical incompetence by the area’s health-care providers? No reason to think so. That leaves one other possibility. Is there something happening in the environment? As a matter of fact, yes.

Major cities with pollution problems have either high ozone, like Los Angeles, or high particulate pollution, like Salt Lake City, depending on the time of year. But the Uinta Basin has both simultaneously, making it unique and the most polluted part of the state. Studies suggest that the two may act synergistically to impair human health. Add to that high levels of the by-products of every phase of the oil and gas fracking extraction process – diesel emissions and hazardous compounds like benzene, toluene and naphthene, and you have a uniquely toxic air pollution brew in Vernal.

Inhaling air pollution has the same systemic health consequences as cigarette smoking, only to a lesser degree – unless you’re doing your inhaling in Beijing, China, then eliminate the “lesser.” The signature physiologic consequence of air pollution, be it from smoke stacks, tail pipes, fracking or cigarettes, is an inflammatory response that reduces blood flow. Diseases of virtually every organ system can follow. Strokes, heart attacks, every type of lung disease, cognitive impairment, cancer, accelerated aging and sudden death, including infant mortality, all occur at higher rates among people exposed to air pollution. In the case of a pregnant mother, the placenta is compromised for the same reason, and it should be easily understood then that pregnancy complications and impaired fetal development – think birth defects, miscarriages and stillbirths – can be the result. Many epidemiological studies show that to be the case. That increased infant mortality in the Uinta Basin could be the result of the increased air pollution is suggested by medical research. It is not only plausible, but very likely.

But there is more to the story, much more. If you do a Google search for “pollution in Vernal, Utah” you will see a picture of a man at a street corner holding up a sign that says, “Honk if you love drilling.” Vernal politicians certainly do. With jobs, increased tax base, new community recreation centers, burgeoning store fronts on Main Street, people with money to spend – what’s not to like? Well, dead babies perhaps. What else is not to like? Someone who calls attention to the dead babies – a concerned midwife for example.

Young has been targeted by the community’s power brokers as whistleblowers often are. She received a threatening “legal” letter from the local hospital. She’s been told by one of the local doctors that everyone wants to take her down “politically” and ruin her career. She has also received ominous, threatening phone calls. But others are starting to speak out with worrisome observations of their own.

Since Young stepped forward, a mother in Vernal contacted us about a rare birth defect her six-month old has that threatens her baby’s ability to breathe. Two houses away, her neighbor’s three-month old baby has the same birth defect. Checking with the local pediatrics clinic has revealed 30 patients with the same rare birth defect. It amounts to a prevalence rate of at least seven times the normal rate of one in 2,100 live births.

This drama is also a larger metaphor with global implications. Eastern Utah could be considered ground zero for the battle to keep the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. In addition to the fracking frenzy for oil and gas in the area, Utah is also “blessed/cursed” with the largest unconventional fossil fuel reservoir in the United States and perhaps the world – oil shale and tar sands deposits are 25 times larger than those in Alberta, Canada. Using geology-based assessment methodology, the US Geological Survey estimated a total of 4.285 trillion barrels of oil in the oil shale of the three principal basins of the Eocene Green River Formation, near Vernal, Utah.

If those deposits are extracted and burned (and the process would be much more carbon intensive than conventional oil and gas drilling), Utah would become home to the largest known carbon “bomb” on the planet. More “game over” for the planet than the Keystone pipeline.

The international medical community has called the climate crisis, “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century and . . . could put the lives and well-being of billions of people at increased risk.” Throughout the world the most vulnerable will be infants and children.

Apparently that is just fine with Utah’s governor and the majority of our legislature. It is certainly not only fine with, but enthusiastically promoted by, Uinta County commissioners and local politicians. It is also fraught with irony because numerous projections on global warming predict that Utah will become North America’s greatest warming “victim” outside the Arctic. Projections from 2008 suggested that temperatures may rise by 9 degrees F in Utah by 2100. Global warming calculations have only become more alarming since.

A rise of this magnitude will decimate the ecosystems that are necessary to support human life – it means dramatically more drought, shrinking snow pack and water resources, more wildfires and dead forests, unsustainable agriculture, and apocalyptic dust storms – a complete collapse of the human carrying capacity of the Western United States. And it means more dead babies, a lot more.

25 May 2014

Dr. Brian Moench, President, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is a member of the radiation and health committee, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The opinions expressed are his own and not an official position of UCS or PSR.

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