My eldest son has already had many “firsts” this 2014-2015 school year. He began the first grade, enjoying new knowledge and new friendships. He lost his first three teeth, and proudly speaks with the awkwardness of having them missing. He now knows how to operate a telephone without our help, calling his Dad frequently to find out when he’ll be home from work. And when our air quality is bad, he refuses to go outdoors without wearing his facemask, because he knows the bad air is “dangerous” for his health. As he reaches each milestone, I reflect upon how far he has come and how grateful we are for his health, despite being born into an area that suffers greatly from poor air quality.
In Utah, January is a terrible month for air quality. A number of cities suffer from inversion periods and those mountainous areas with large-scale industry emitting pollutants into the air suffer. According to the Utah Division of Air Quality, the small oil town of Vernal, Utah in the Uintah Basin, has a high number of particulate matter and ozone. Accumulating like soup in a bowl, this can affect birth outcomes and the health and development of children. Every year around this time, I’m reminded that I was pregnant with my first son during a bad inversion period. I wonder if the toxic air was the cause for his developmental delays. And I’m not alone.
It was May of 2013, when Donna Young, a midwife in Vernal, attended a funeral for a baby who she delivered stillborn, her first ever as a midwife. As she proceeded through the cemetery grounds, she noticed a tragic pattern: an unusually large number of infants laid to rest that same year — totaling 13 in all. These stillborn deaths are a high number of dead infants for a population of this size. In fact, in 2010, 1 out of every 95 plots buried in this cemetery held a baby. In 2013, the number rose to 1 in 14. What was causing the spike in infant deaths? Concerned about the tragic losses, she alerted authorities. A health care provider by trade, Young focused on determining why they lost their lives…with one possibility looming — dirty air.
Vernal, Utah is a gas and oil boomtown located in the eastern part of the state. Its oil rich reserves have created a town largely supported by, and dependent on, big oil. The oil industry has caused a steep decline in Vernal’s air quality. And the effect of these infant deaths cast a dark shadow over this tiny town.
Vernal has an unusually high number of both particulate matter and ozone, and studies show that poor air quality can affect birth outcomes. Because Vernal thrives off the oil and gas industry, Young’s findings sparked a large controversy including vandalism and threats to Young, who says, “I just really, really want to find out what is going on.” I would also like to know what’s going on.
In order to protect the future health of our children, there must be stronger regulation of the power industry. Currently, the Tri-County Health Department in Vernal is working with the Utah Department of Health to see if the number of dead babies in 2013 is correct.
I look forward to getting to the heart of the matter and uncovering the sad truth. Meanwhile, I hope my young family will continue to discover new “firsts” – we’ll just be doing it wearing facemasks.