Infant deaths near oil drilling sites raise questions

Donna Young, midwifeRJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The smartphone-sized grave marker is nearly hidden in the grass at Rock Point Cemetery. The name printed on plastic-coated paper — Beau Murphy — has been worn away. Only the span of his life remains.

“June 18, 2013 – June 18, 2013”

For some reason, one that is not known and may never be, Beau and a dozen other infants died in this oil-booming basin last year. Was this spike a fluke? Bad luck? Or were these babies victims of air pollution fed by the nearly 12,000 oil and gas wells in one of the most energy-rich areas in the country..?

But just raising that possibility raises the ire of many who live in and around Vernal. Drilling has been an economic driver and part of the fabric of life here since the 1940s. And if all that energy development means the Uintah Basin has a particularly nasty problem with pollution, so be it, many residents say. Don’t blame drilling for baby deaths that obituaries indicate were six times higher than the national average last year…

“Suffice it to say that air pollution from drilling is a part of it,” Dr. Brian Moench said of the Vernal-area deaths.

Moench, a Salt Lake City-based anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, admits that establishing a scientifically solid link between dead babies and drilling pads is complicated…

Moench took it seriously this year when Vernal midwife Donna Young told him that she had researched obituaries and was alarmed by the high numbers of dead babies.

Young and Moench were able to convince the TriCounty Health Department in Vernal to work with the state on a study to determine if Young’s trend figures are correct.

Moench said that people who aren’t looking at the possibility of a connection “have blinders on…”

Part of the reluctance of residents around Vernal to ascribe any ill effects to energy-field pollution could be tied to the average $3,963 average monthly nonfarm wage in Uintah County — the highest in Utah…

The Utah Department of Health is now working on a study. Epidemiologists initially are using birth and death certificates to determine if there truly was a spike in infant deaths, as Young’s numbers show.

Her numbers show an upward four-year trend in infant deaths: One in every 95.5 burials in Uintah County in 2010 was a baby, according to Young. In 2011 it was one in every 53. In 2012, one in every 39.7. And in 2013 the number jumped to one in every 15…

Besides oil-and-gas-stoked pollution, there could be many other causes…Twice as many residents here smoke than in the rest of Utah. More residents, in an area rife with new fast-food chains, are overweight. More residents admit to drinking heavily. There are more teen mothers and more mothers on average who don’t get good prenatal care.

For now, infant deaths have dropped back to average. Residents are reluctant to talk about the infant-death issue. Many are focusing on a future that is filled with expanded fossil-fuel prospects. Nearly 85 percent of Vernal residents indicated in a recent survey that they welcome oil shale development.

Give me a chance for a voice and a vote – I’d vote for a wind farm or a solar farm on the mesa across our valley. We haven’t wind speeds averaging as high as downstate; but, we sure have sunlight.

Anyone want to drill for oil in my neck of the prairie, I’ll be the first to set this old butt down in the middle of the highway to stop them.

Thanks, Mike

12 thoughts on “Infant deaths near oil drilling sites raise questions

    • News item says:

      “Toxic vapors suspected in deaths of three Colorado oil and gas workers” “…part of a mysterious puzzle that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is piecing together along with eight other oil field deaths over the past five years.
      ● Oil and gas sites are exempt from many OSHA rules, and working in the industry is considered one of the most hazardous in the country. The national occupational fatality rate for the oil and gas industry was seven times higher than general industry and 2½ times higher than the construction industry between 2005 and 2009, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. ●

  1. 0k3yd0k3 says:

    “High Levels of Dangerous Chemicals Found in Air Near Oil and Gas Sites : A five-state study raises new questions about the health impacts of the U.S. energy boom.” “In 40 percent of the air samples, laboratory tests found benzene, formaldehyde, or other toxic substances associated with oil and gas production that were above levels the federal government considers safe for brief or longer-term exposure. Far above, in some cases.” “We have not seen credible studies showing natural gas production causes health effects,” Dan Whitten, a spokesman for trade group America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said by email. “Obviously, we are sympathetic to anyone with health concerns. Our members remain committed to the development of natural gas in a safe and responsible manner.”

    • Expendables says:

      Health concerns about oil field fracking have been focused on the mixed brew of chemicals injected into wells. But it is another innocuous-sounding substance – sand – that poses a more serious danger to workers.
      Government overseers of workplace safety first highlighted the problem three years ago and issued a hazard alert a year later warning that high levels of fine quartz sand around fracking operations could lead to silicosis and other lung illnesses.
      But efforts to update the 44-year-old exposure limits on sand dust are dragging on. Engineering solutions to the problem are still being researched. And, while many energy companies are taking steps to lessen the amount of what is referred to as “respirable crystalline silica” by scientists or “frac sand” by oilfield workers, the industry, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is also opposing much in proposed new regulations.
      “The proposed rule does not address significant risks, nor provide significant benefits, and is neither technologically nor economically feasible. Accordingly, the Chamber believes the proposed rule must be withdrawn,” reads a 33-page comment letter from the chamber to the Department of Labor.

  2. Cassandra says:

    “State Oil Inspectors In New Mexico Overwhelmed” Oil production in New Mexico has shot up 70 percent since 2008. The number of active wells across the state has grown to 60,000 however the Oil Conservation Division, which regulates the oil and gas industry in New Mexico, only has 14 inspectors. It’s difficult for the state to retain them because they can double their salary if they work for an oil company. The lack of enforcement staff makes keeping up with the workload impossible. According to OCD records, 40% of the wells in New Mexico were never inspected in 2013. That can put workers and the environment at risk. Six years ago the OCD was sued by a local oil company and had to stop issuing fines for violations under the state’s Oil and Gas Act. Inspectors still have the option to deny permits to drill new wells or transport oil, but the process can be cumbersome and lengthy. As of late December, the OCD had one open slot for a field inspector. In the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 15, OCD will ask lawmakers for nine new positions. Three would be for field inspectors. But with the ongoing decline in oil prices, New Mexico has already cut this year’s projection for new revenue in half. That will make additional money for the OCD a tough sell.

  3. Here&Now says:

    (August 27th, 2015): “More than 15 million Americans live within one mile of unconventional oil and gas (UOG) operations that combine directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to release natural gas from underground rock. Scientific studies still are inconclusive on the potential long-term effects on human development. Now, Susan C. Nagel and Christopher D. Kassotis, researchers with the University of Missouri, and national colleagues have conducted a review of research on health effects associated with UOG operations and concluded these activities have potential for environmental release of a complex mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that could potentially harm human development and reproduction.
    The authors reviewed more than 100 scientific, peer-reviewed publications and examined the studies thoroughly for patterns and links that focused on UOG chemicals and human development. In their peer-reviewed commentary, the authors concluded that available research suggests potential adverse health outcomes and note a dearth of evidence-based research related to the UOG process.” The review, “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Oil and Natural Gas Operations: Potential Environmental Contamination and Recommendations to Assess Complex Environmental Mixtures” recently was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

  4. Klaxon says:

    “According to a recent study from Johns Hopkins, expectant mothers who live near fracking wells are at a increased risk of complications during pregnancy. Researchers analyzed data from 40 counties in Pennsylvania, a fracking-friendly state that had less than 100 fracking sites in 2006 and today has over 8,000. They found that living near active drilling sites correlated with a 40 percent increase in pre-term birth and a 30 percent increase in “high-risk” pregnancy, which means complications like high blood pressure or excessive weight gain.” “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that preterm-related causes of death together accounted for 35 percent of all infant deaths in 2010, more than any other single cause. Being born prematurely is also a leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children. Preterm birth cost the U.S. health care system more than $26 billion in 2005, they say.”
    “The growth in the fracking industry has gotten way out ahead of our ability to assess what the environmental and, just as importantly, public health impacts are,” says study leader Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “More than 8,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania alone and we’re allowing this while knowing almost nothing about what it can do to health. Our research adds evidence to the very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry.” …While the research is still in its infancy, Schwartz says everything that has come out so far should give decision makers cause for concern.
    “The first few studies have all shown health impacts,” he says. “Policymakers need to consider findings like these in thinking about how they allow this industry to go forward.”

    • Update says:

      In a recently published report, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found, overall, few indicators of health dangers living near oil and gas wells …but report says more research is needed to understand drilling’s impact on public health.
      A study by University of Colorado researchers published earlier this month found a possible link between drilling and a specific kind of childhood cancer. But Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment executive director Dr. Larry Wolk looked skeptically upon that study’s results, as he did on the results of a previous study by the same CU researchers that saw a possible association with drilling and congenital heart defects (see links).

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