Mountain States

Colorado Health Officials Rebuke ‘Ban Fracking’ Claims About Babies

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has once again debunked the reckless claims of political activists who are trying to scare mothers and fathers by alleging links between oil and gas development and birth defects.

When the CDPHE commenced an investigation of 22 fetal anomalies in Glenwood Springs earlier this year, environmental activists immediately lobbied the news media to implicate oil and gas development. The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, one of Western Colorado’s best-known anti-drilling groups, told the Denver Post: “It’s horrifying what’s going on in Glenwood.” Out-of-state activists even jumped on the bandwagon, with No Fracking Way’s Chip Northrup claiming: “Turns out that fetuses are not immune to the hazards of fracking.”

But the results of the CDPHE’s investigation, released today, show the activists had no factual basis for their claims and were using cynical scare tactics to push their political agenda against the oil and gas industry. State public health regulators reviewed more than a dozen factors, including proximity to oil and gas wells, and according to CDPHE executive director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk:

“Our investigation looked at each reported case and concluded they are not linked to any common risk factors.”

This isn’t the first time Dr. Wolk, a practicing physician once voted Colorado’s Pediatrician of the Year, has been forced to fact check the shameless fear mongering of “ban fracking” activists in Colorado. For example, Clean Water Action’s Gary Wockner claimed earlier this year:  “Fracking causes babies to be deformed.” And here’s what anti-industry activist Wes Wilson has said will happen if the oil and gas industry is eliminated: “There’ll be babies born fully healthy.”

But those claims are based on a paper from a team of researchers whose work is routinely cited by political activist groups who want to ban hydraulic fracturing. In fact, those same researchers were disavowed by the CDPHE for misinterpreting state birth records when writing their paper. Dr. Wolk even released a statement to warn the public and the news media that “a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned.”

Today’s CDPHE report can be found here, and below is the full text of the state agency’s press release:

Birth anomalies not linked to common cause, investigation concludes

DENVER – An investigation by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment of 22 reported anomalies in unborn children in Garfield County found no common underlying cause.

Dr. Larry Wolk, department executive director and chief medical officer, said, “Our investigation looked at each reported case and concluded they are not linked to any common risk factors.”

Department epidemiologists looked at more than a dozen factors including each mother’s place of conception and current address; drinking water source (municipal and well); proximity to active oil and gas wells; proximity to each other; the age, health, and family history of the mothers; the mother’s use of medications, supplements, tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and other substances; each mother’s prior pregnancies and deliveries; and ethnicity. While there were different risk factors identified for individual cases, no pattern emerged to suggest a common risk factor for the reported anomalies.

The cases, reported by Women’s Health and A Woman’s Place – two clinics located in Glenwood Springs, were from mothers with residences spread over a wide geographic area, not isolated in any single community. The department was asked to investigate due to the number of prenatal ultrasounds showing very rare congenital anomalies reported in late 2013.

The department’s birth defects registry mainly tracks birth defects after children are born. The study was unique in that it looked at unborn children with birth defects detected by ultrasound early in pregnancy. Therefore, a number of additional factors should be considered, including the limitations of the ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, observer variability, and the timing of the ultrasound. It is possible one of these variables may have accounted for an impression that there is a higher number of anomalies. In addition, because prenatal ultrasounds are not typically monitored by the state, there is no way to know if these cases represent a higher number than normal.

In addition, there was no single or common type of birth anomaly reported. Types of anomalies varied and included cardiac anomalies, commonly diagnosed autosomal trisomies, other suspected chromosomal anomalies and molar pregnancies.

Dr. Wolk said, “There is no state or federal registry of pre-birth anomalies that would show whether the cases referred to the department are greater or less than the number of cases occurring in the general population. While some may have expected the investigation would identify one or two risk factors that link these cases, no such link was found. It is natural to look at even a single birth anomaly and ask why. But sadly, birth anomalies do occur.”

The full report can be found under the Hot Topics section of the department’s webpage, click on Glenwood Springs Prenatal Report.

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