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State to Investigate Infant Mortality in Uintah County

Andrea Smardon
Rock Point Cemetery in Maeser where some of the Uintah County babies who died in 2013 are buried.

A midwife in Vernal has brought attention to what she believes is an unusually high rate of infant mortality in Uintah County. She and some environmental activists believe the newborn deaths may be connected to pollution from oil and gas drilling in the area. State and local health officials are holding a public meeting Wednesday evening to discuss a possible study of the issue.

Donna Young has been delivering babies for almost 20 years. She had never lost one until May 2013. Around that same time, she was hearing about other infants dying in her community. She started doing some research.

“I went to the history center that’s owned by the county. I read the funeral home websites and went back through all their obituaries. I have searched online and read the newspapers trying to make sense out of what’s going on,” Young says.

From her independent research of infant deaths in Uintah county, she found that in 2010 there were 2 deaths, in 2011 there were 3, in 2012 there were 4, and in 2013 there were 12. Young says some of these mothers lived or worked in the same intersection in Vernal, making her think that the cause may be environmental. 

“I would like to see a study being done to find a cause and find out what’s going on. I would like that followed through with a solution to the problem,” Young says.

The TriCounty health department has asked the state department of health to help them with a study. Utah health department spokesman Tom Hudachko says the study is still being defined, but they are planning to do a statistical review to determine whether there have been unusually high numbers of adverse birth outcomes - low-weight or premature births, stillbirths, or  infant deaths - compared to the rest of the state.

“While we may or may not establish that there is an elevated risk of adverse birth outcomes, a study like this is not designed to make a determination as to what is causing those birth outcomes,” Hudachko says. He says further study may be warranted if there does appear to an elevated risk for these birth outcomes or deaths.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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