A midwife in a Utah boomtown has been shunned by the local community after raising concerns about a spike in stillbirth rates. The midwife questioned whether the oil industry may have played a role in the sudden increase in stillbirths in the area.
The LA Times reports that Donna Young is a veteran midwife in Vernal, Utah. She has 20 years experience helping women in the area deliver babies, but in May of 2013, the midwife experienced her first stillbirth. Young grieved the loss of the baby along with the family. The baby was named Natalie and was buried at the town’s Rock Point Cemetery.
The loss of the infant was hard on not only the family, but for Young who had cared for the young mother and growing baby throughout the pregnancy. However, it wasn’t this single stillbirth that raised alarm flags for Young, it was what she noticed while attending baby Natalie’s funeral. Young says there were seven new grave markings for other infants. Following Natalie’s funeral, five more babies would be buried that year. This brought the total to 13 infant deaths in one year for the town of Vernal.
With a town population of just 10,344 in 2013, 13 infant deaths in one year is quite staggering. According to the National Institutes of Health, the stillbirth rate averages about 1 in 160 births in the United States. Young points out to Newsweek that the major increase in stillbirths began in 2013.
“According to Young’s findings, the town put in 191 graves in 2010, of which two were for infants. A year later, three infants died, and in 2012, four. The following year, 13 infants died shortly after birth. Total burials in Vernal numbered 176 in 2013, so roughly one in every 15 new graves was for an infant. Vernal’s rate of neonatal mortality appears to have climbed from about average in 2010 (relative to national figures) to six times the normal rate three years later, Young’s calculations show.”
After noting a startlingly high neonatal mortality rate, Young began to wonder what could cause such an increase. Air quality and pollution are known issues in the Uintah Basin area, which includes Vernal. In fact, several advocacy groups have raised questions about the Uintah Basin’s high air pollution, which has been blamed on the oil and gas industry. The oil industry itself admits to air quality control issues, but claims they have nothing to do with the increase in infant deaths.
“We’ve seen the same kind of thing before, where anecdotal evidence is blamed on the oil and natural gas industry. Those accusations before there’s any real evidence are highly suspect.”
However, Young is quick to point out that she does not want to blame the oil and gas industry, she simply wanted the state to investigate the issue further.
“I hate to blame the oil industry, because our livelihoods depend on it. If the [drilling] industry is strong, then the community is strong. But I want solutions. I never want to be in that spot again. I don’t ever want to lose another child.”
Unfortunately for Young, not everyone in the community appreciated the state taking a closer look at the oil industry. Mayor Sonya Norton called Young’s accusations “an insult to a town trying to clean up its air.”
“People get very protective of what we have here. If you challenge our livelihood, it’s considered personal.”
And personal it was. Following her appeal to the State of Utah to investigate the neonatal deaths, Young has been ostracized for her questioning of the town’s biggest money maker — the oil industry. She claims to have received phone calls warning her to “shut up” or leave town.
“One caller said a few dead babies wasn’t worth putting any heat on the oil companies.”
The most recent attack on the midwife came in the form of rat poison. Young says she found rat poison in her cattle feed, but luckily none of her animals got sick. Regardless of the ill-will towards the midwife, Young says she is “pro-oil,” noting that two of her sons work in the industry. However, she still wants to know the truth behind the mysterious increase in stillbirths in the area.