DeSmogBlog first published information about this spike in neonatal deaths in a May 16, 2014 article
about Donna Young, the Vernal midwife who first brought the problem to the attention of Utah public health officials.
Since Young started trying to draw officials’ attention to the problem though, Rolling Stone reveals, she has received nasty phone calls, death threats, harassment and even intentional damage to her reputation by medical colleagues. Someone even tried to poison her cattle.
Rolling Stone describes the alarming extent of the air pollution peculair to Vernal due to the area’s geography and the high density of wells and fracking ongoing in the Uintah Basin. There are currently over 11,000 wells in the basin, which Rolling Stone says “generate an enormous amount of soot and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)” — an amount equivalent to the exhaust generated by 100 million cars.
It’s well established that many of the hazardous chemicals released in drilling activities, like benzene, toluene and xylenes (BTEX
), can cross the placental barrier and cause birth defects.
Moreoever, wintertime inversions exacerbate the health effects of Vernal’s air pollution by clamping a thermal lid on the valley in which Vernal sits, holding the air pollution in place and increasing its density.
Rolling Stone author Paul Solotaroff writes that Vernal has “ozone readings that rival the worst days of summer in New York, Los Angeles or Salt Lake City; particulate matter as bad as Mexico City; and ground air fraught with carcinogenic gases like benzene, rogue emissions from oil and gas drilling.”
Vernal is also home to a large number of evaporative waste ponds where drilling companies dispose of contaminated frack water from the thousands of area wells. Trucks rumble up to the waste pits at all hours of the day and dump their loads, and the liquid is aerated to accelerate evaporation, putting more chemicals into the air.
Dr. Brian Moench, a Salt Lake City physician who co-founded the public health advocacy group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, explains that the industrial chemicals a pregnant mother inhales get passed through the umbilical cord to her fetus, causing long and short term complications. He explains that toxins are attracted to fat cells, and that the brain is the “largest fat reservoir in a developing fetus.”
Instead of being grateful to Young for trying to bring attention to the problem of the high neonatal death rate in Vernal, citizens viciously turned on her after the Salt Lake Tribune
ran two stories about the problem. Both appeared on the paper’s front page.
After the stories were published, Young started getting angry phone calls from people accusing her of “trying to bust up the economy.”
Staff members from Vernal’s Ashley Regional Medical Center badmouthed Young to their patients and described her in online comments as a “baby killer.” Ashely’s CEO, Ben Cluff, even threatened Young with legal action for “[communicating] inaccurate information regarding the number of infant deaths at our facility.”
To date, nothing has been done to address the problem and the high rate of stillbirths continue. Young reports that four out of five of her most recent clients experienced miscarriages in the span of just two weeks.
The women who lost their babies told Young their household water tasted bad, so Young took samples of their water and tested it using a device that drillers use. Most of the samples tested positive for extreme toxicity from hydrogen sulfide, “one of the most deadly of the gases released by drilling.”
Rolling Stone reports that in tiny amounts, hydrogen sulfide can cause miscarriages, and the amounts Young found were more than 7,000 times the EPA‘s threshold for safety.
But Young laments she has nowhere to turn with this information because, given Vernal citizens’ attitudes towards drilling, there is no one in town she can trust.