“I Speak for the Dead Babies”

by Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs on June 22, 2015 - 7:29am

Rolling Stone Story Spread“I Speak for the Dead Babies” 

That’s an actual statement from Rolling Stone reporter Paul Solotaroff, who grew frustrated over our 20-minute conversation in which I calmly explained the science of air quality in the Uinta Basin, the findings of the state epidemiologist, and what industry and regulators were doing to solve the problem.

But I wasn’t expecting much from Rolling Stone, with its journalistic accolades covering university sexual assault. But to be fair, its environmental reporting has been shoddy for years, and I expected no better in a story as sensational as blaming dead babies on air pollution from oil and natural gas development.

The article What’s Killing the Babies of Vernal, Utah? was what you’d expect: a rehash of misinformation about fracking that has been debunked a hundred times; a conspiratorial tone where everyone–from Obama to EPA on down – is supposedly willfully putting citizens at risk; unsubstantiated accusations of attempted livestock poisoning and anonymous threats; sensational graphics of skeletons superimposed on pump jacks; and anecdotal evidence proclaimed as “the truth” even when not supported by science.

The story is almost laughable, if it weren’t so sad. A midwife who puts her clients on a fringe naturopathy regimen that includes avoiding the microwave to prepare them for homebirths she attends with her 15-year-old daughter has some unsuccessful outcomes with her clients. Rather than questioning her own methods, she looks through the obituaries and raises the alarm that there were several other stillbirths in Vernal in 2013. The state epidemiologist and the TriCounty Health Department investigated to determine if her anecdotal evidence indicates a true statistical trend that needs further investigation, and recently released their findings.

Since key information and context are missing from the Rolling Stone article, I’ll fill you in on some basic facts about Uinta Basin air quality and the investigation into infant deaths in Vernal.

1. Findings of the State Study

TriCounty Health and the Utah Department of Health didn’t just blow off the midwife’s anecdotal evidence. They took it seriously and did a statistical study. Why a statistical study? Because that’s what scientists do to start an investigation. If something is statistically significant, that indicates that more study is needed. Full causal study takes time and expense, so before allocating limited public health resources to such, it’s an important first step.

What did the state epidemiologist find? He found that the adverse birth outcome (ABO) rate in Vernal did not show a statistically significant difference than Utah overall after controlling for risk factors. ABOs include low birth weight, premature births, and infant deaths, and the data did not show a significant trend during the high ozone years that would cause them to conduct a causal study to try to link ABOs to air quality. He did find an uptick in stillbirths in 2013 and the health department will monitor future data to ensure it is not the start of a trend. Yes, the midwife was right about the uptick in stillbirths, but not about much else.

What they did identify is that Vernal and the TriCounty area have a much higher rate of maternal obesity and tobacco use than the rest of Utah. Since those two risk factors are well known causes of ABOs, TriCounty wisely determined its public health resources were much better spent tackling them, rather than trying to find a tenuous link between ABOs and air quality. But when you’re a Rolling Stone reporter or a midwife untrained in scientific evaluation, those explanations just don’t compute.

2. How Safe Are Vernal Babies

I called TriCounty to help provide further perspective on the steps the state and counties are taking to protect infant and maternal health. Note that Solotaroff didn’t perform this basic step, instead deciding to harass a retired employee who is of course no longer responsible for speaking for the organization. 

It turns out those clean-living Mormons are on to something. Utah is one of the nation’s best when it comes to healthy babies. The state epidemiologist found that even the Uinta Basin with its higher rates of maternal weight and tobacco use looks bad in comparison to Utah, but compared to the rest of the nation, it performs well. Here are the 2013 rates of ABOs per 1,000 live births for Utah, the Uinta Basin, and the nation. In every category, the Uinta Basin outperforms the nation.

Low birth weight:
  - TriCounty Rate = 59.1
  - State Rate = 57.7
  - National Rate = 82.6

Preterm birth rate:
  - TriCounty Rate =  77.2
  - State Rate =  76.5
  - National Rate = 113.9

  - TriCounty Rate = 5.9
  - State Rate = 4.8
  - National Rate = 6.3

To emphasize, the data show that there are fewer stillbirths in the Uinta Basin, 5.9 per 1,000 live births, than the national rate of 6.3. The data provide further indication that a causal study on poor air quality is not the key. The state epidemiologist, Sam LeFevre, wisely suggested future study to ensure the rates of ABOs do not trend in a negative direction, and TriCounty Health plans to focus health resources on reducing the most important and known risk factors. By focusing the obvious risks, the state and counties will be better able to protect infant health than expending resources on a long, costly study.

3. Air Quality Issues in the Uinta Basin

The Rolling Stone article is only able to make scary sounding claims about air quality in the Uinta Basin by leaving out actual facts. Allow me to run through a brief history of air quality in the Uinta Basin which the reporter chose to ignore.

Elevated ozone levels were first recorded in the winter of 2010 in the Uinta Basin. Ozone is not directly emitted, but forms when certain precursor emissions from vehicles, industry and natural sources react in sunlight to form ozone pollution. Since until about the mid-2000s ozone was largely viewed by the scientific community as an urban, summer issue, very little was known about winter ozone formation in rural areas. Western Energy Alliance financially supported a three-year study by the State of Utah, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Uintah and Duchesne Counties, Utah State University and several other universities of winter ozone formation in the basin to fill that scientific gap and determine the best solutions to the problem.

The study determined oil and natural gas development and production are indeed the leading sources of emissions in the basin, but ozone levels that exceed health standards only occur under certain temperature conditions–when there’s snow on the ground and a temperature inversion. Ozone levels are below levels that can harm public health the vast majority of the year. No high ozone levels were recorded in 2012, even though production in the basin increased.

Not content to just wait, industry has undertaken voluntary measures to reduce emissions while also working with state and federal regulators to proactively address the ozone issue. Several new state and federal regulations have been enacted. Industry and regulatory agencies working together have achieved measurable reductions in ozone precursor emissions, and there has not been an ozone level that has exceeded health standards in the Uinta Basin since December of 2013.

So no, industry is not callously polluting and “getting away with it” as the Rolling Stone would have you believe. Western Energy Alliance and producers have been working collaboratively to make sure air quality improves.

While EPA has indeed determined that ozone causes ill health effects, studies linking air quality and ABOs point to particulate matter (PM) as the primary pollutant of concern. Uinta Basin PM levels do not fail health standards. Despite that misinformation in the article, the air quality concern in the basin is ozone, not PM.

4. Activists not Experts

In the article, Rolling Stone quotes heavily from Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) but gives short shrift to health experts like the state epidemiologist and TriCounty Health, and only quotes one scientist involved in the three-year ozone study, Dr. Seth Lyman of USU, who confirms that the link between ozone and stillbirths is highly unlikely. Rolling Stone does however feature a discredited activist, Dr. Brian Moench, famous for calling people schizophrenics and psychopaths who disagree with his fringe environmental views such as that mammograms cause cancer. From subtle techniques such as not referring to Lyman as Dr. but making sure to do so with Moench to the blatant technique of extended quotes and highlights for Moench and a brief quote for Lyman, the reporter elevates activists with no training in air quality over real scientists conducting research on the very issue at the heart of the article. 

The reporter also describes going into field with “air-testing canisters to measure emissions” with UPHE. Collecting air “samples” in a canister is an activist’s stunt and not a valid method for measuring air quality. The reporter insults the intelligence of its readers by falling for tactics meant to confuse the public about environmental issues.

Rolling Stone is clearly advancing a sensational narrative based on anecdotal evidence and conspiracy while downplaying the findings of actual experts and health professionals directly in the basin. UPHE is an advocacy organization headed by a former Sierra Club activist; while it has physicians on staff, none are directly involved in the basin nor experts on air quality. Yet they are the ones featured and the only narrative that is acceptable is theirs. Everyone else is merely involved in a conspiratorial cover-up. By making a hero out of a midwife whose methods are well outside accepted medical practice but denigrating those like TriCounty Health and doctors in the basin, Rolling Stone is helping advance an agenda that would result in poorer health for the citizens of the Uinta Basin, including the babies. 

Rolling Stone Magazine CoverFull story in July 2, 2015 issue
Blog Categories: