There is something seriously wrong in the fertile Yakima Valley region of Washington.
A surging number of babies are being born with major birth defects, and the reasons why are eluding state health officials.
As reported by CNN, a nurse in the area, Sara Barron, was the first to report on a particularly horrifying condition: anencephaly — a condition in which babies are born without much of their brain and skull.
“I was just stunned,” she told the network in an interview. “Three in a couple-of-month period of time… that’s unheard of, and they have such tragic, terrible outcomes.”
Her shocking finding and report eventually prompted an investigation by the state health department. Investigators found some disturbing results.
Over a three-year period, there were 23 cases concentrated in three southern Washington counties — Yakima, Benton and Franklin. That’s a rate (8.4 per 10,000 live births) that is four times the national average (2.1 per 10,000 live births), CNN reported.
What could be causing such a phenomenon? Is it just one of those weird coincidences, or is something more sinister at play?
Mandy Stahre, with the Washington State Department of Health, conducted the investigation into the high rates of anencephaly. She says she and other investigators are stumped.
“We have not found an answer, and that’s a very frustrating part, because this is such a devastating diagnosis for a woman to have,” she told CNN.
Barron, however, says she wonders if state health authorities did not find anything because they didn’t look hard enough at all possible causes.
‘We have to weigh how invasive we want to be’
For one thing, she said, the health department has not spoken to any of the parents of the babies who had birth defects. So they don’t know what the parents may have eaten, or what environmental conditions they have been exposed to, or what kind of chemicals or substances they all might have come in contact with — like, perhaps, the pesticides that are routinely sprayed in the heavily agricultural region in which they live.
Andrea Jackman, whose daughter Olivia was born with spina bifida, another type of neural tube defect, said she wasn’t asked anything by state investigators.
“Nobody’s asked me anything,” she told the network.
So, exactly how did the state conduct its investigation? Stahre said investigators examined data in each parent’s medical record — what sort of prescription drugs they were taking and preexisting medical conditions.
“The study examined medical records from January 2010 through January 2013 and looked at possible risk factors including family history, pre-pregnancy weight, health risk behaviors such as supplemental folic acid and medication use, and whether the woman’s residence received drinking water from a public or private source. No significant differences were found when comparing cases of anencephaly with healthy births in the three county area,” said a health department press release.
“But medical records don’t have details about diet or pesticide exposure,” CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen reported, “two key considerations for this type of birth defect.”
Indeed, the health department — in its press release — even admitted: “Medical record reviews might not have captured all information, preventing a cause from being identified.”
So why not talk to the mothers?
“Well, we have to weigh that,” said Stahre. “This is a devastating diagnosis, and we know that for a lot of these women, they had to make some hard choices. We do have to weigh about how invasive we want to be with these types of reviews.”
At least one mother — Jackman — said she would have “been fine” with being questioned. She wants answers so that other mothers don’t have to go through the same thing.