State studies 
fetal anomalies 
in Garfield Co.

A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment review of concerns about a sudden increase in fetal problems in Garfield County is probably weeks from completion, a department spokesman says.

The review, prompted by concerns relayed to the state by Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs and clinics it is associated with, follows the release of a Colorado study earlier this year pointing to a possible increased risk of two birth defects when mothers live near oil and gas development.

But authorities aren’t pointing to any connections between that study’s concerns and the current investigation, although they’ve yet to provide specifics about what’s being investigated.

“We’re still investigating. We’re gathering data and information, but from the preliminary review we haven’t seen any evidence that would cause the department to notify the community of a public health concern,” said Mark Salley, health department spokesman.

Salley said it’s rare for the state to receive such a report from local health officials.

The state investigation, coming as it does on the heels of the study conducted mostly by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health, raises alarms for Dave Devanney, an oil and gas activist living in Battlement Mesa.

“I think anybody would be concerned … about having their children born in the area,” he said.

Salley said none of the reporting parties expressed concern to the state about a possible link between the fetal problem and the possible drilling risk to newborns suggested by the study.

“That doesn’t mean no one in the community might be expressing that concern,” he said.

The study found an increased prevalence in rural Colorado of congenital heart defects and neural tube defects, which affect the brain, spine or spinal cord, for newborns based on increased proximity and density of wells near their mothers. Garfield County has more than 10,000 oil and gas wells, the second-most of any county in the state.

Stacey Gavrell, spokeswoman for Valley View, said she can’t give details on the kinds of fetal anomalies being seen, but the hospital is working with the state on the matter.

“I don’t want to speculate any further on this issue,” she said.

The state investigation will be made public once it’s complete, Salley said.

“We’re just all waiting for that,” said Yvonne Long, Garfield County’s public health director. She said the investigation is based on a report received several months ago.

“For whatever reason, what someone reported to them they decided to follow up. They really haven’t given us a lot of details yet either,” she said.

She said she’s not been made aware of any relationship between the investigation and the newborn defects study.

Long indicated the investigation is based on miscarriages. Fetal anomalies involve a problem “that is going to make the fetus nonviable at some point in the pregnancy,” as opposed to being born with a birth defect, she said.

“This type of situation with fetal anomalies happens every day throughout the country. There’s just so many factors you have to take into consideration when looking at what might be going on,” she said.

Anything from genetics, to the state where conception occurred, to use of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana by mothers can play a role, Long said.

Lisa McKenzie, one of the researchers on the drilling study, declined comment on the state investigation, saying that without more information she’d merely be speculating.

Her study made use of state health department data, but department executive director Dr. Larry Wolk took issue with its findings and cited limitations such as not knowing where mothers lived during the first trimester of pregnancy, when most birth defects originate.

McKenzie said recently that researchers pretty much agree with the state that the study has limitations and isn’t conclusive. The study, which also found an unexpected decrease in some problems in newborns where mothers lived closer to oil and gas development, included a call for more research into the possible health effects of that development.

“There’s potential for a large population to be exposed and we really need to explore what, if any, health effects may be associated with that,” McKenzie said.

Said Devanney, “We would certainly encourage the CDPHE to do additional studies and also to determine the health impacts. I would encourage them to take a leading role in doing more health-related studies.”

Last year, CDPHE and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources announced the launching of a study to characterize air emissions related to oil and gas development on the Front Range and then assess their possible health effects.

A pending bill would require CDPHE to do a broader-based health study related to drilling on the Front Range. The agency is neutral on the bill, Salley said.


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