No cause for Washington birth defects pinpointed

Dan Wheat
With a state Department of Health study finding no commonalities in an increase in a rare birth defect in three Washington counties, it may be statistical variance, a WSU scientist says.

RICHLAND, Wash. — Nothing other than speculation suggests any link between agricultural pesticides, or anything else, and birth defects in three Washington counties, a Washington State University environmental toxicologist says.

An increase in a rare terminal birth defect in Yakima, Franklin and Benton counties in 2010, 2011 and 2012 might be nothing more than a statistical variance, said Allan Felsot, WSU Extension environmental toxicologist at WSU Tri-Cities in Richland.

CNN reported March 1 that two cases of anencephaly in two months reported by a hospital nurse in 2012 caused the Washington State Department of Health to look through hospital and doctor records. The department found 23 cases of anencephaly — a terminal defect in which babies are born with parts of their brains and skulls missing — in Yakima, Franklin and Benton counties between January 2010 and January 2013.

That’s a rate of 8.4 cases per 10,000 live births and four times the national average of 2.1 per 10,000, CNN reported.

The CNN story raised questions whether the cases are attributable to pesticides or other substances in the local water supply. It noted a Department of Health study concluded there were no common exposures, conditions or causes and quoted a UCLA epidemiologist who questioned whether the department’s investigation was thorough enough.

The department was faulted for not interviewing mothers, asking them about their diets and possible toxins. An investigation is continuing and the department’s epidemiologist, Mandy Stahre, will determine when or if talking to the mothers occurs, said Donn Moyer, department spokesman.

“There should be a good reason to talk to them because they’ve already been through a lot. Right now because there is no common cause or exposure, the best advice is for mothers to get their folic acid and prenatal care,” Moyer said. Good prenatal care includes folic acid, he said.

The CNN story did not report that the most common known cause of anencephaly and related spina bifida are lack of the B-vitamin folic acid in the mother’s diet, he said. Other factors include certain medications, diabetes, pre-pregnancy obesity and previously having a child with a neural tube defect, he said.

The department may have data next month on whether the trend continued in 2013, Moyer said.

“It could be just a statistical anomaly because its a small sample size,” Moyer said. “The jump in numbers in those years was unusual for those counties, too. Previously their counts were in more normal ranges.”

Felsot said the department should look at the women’s family histories, diets and folic acid levels but still may have a hard time finding a definitive cause because it’s difficult to know what they were exposed to.

“It doesn’t mean anything that we’re above the national average because that’s an average and there are variations across the whole,” Felsot said. “Some places are higher and some places are lower. It’s a nothing story here. It’s story mongering.”

Two cases in two months “seemed bizarre to the nurse, but I wouldn’t want to trust her with my money in probability games,” Felsot said.

Without proof it’s speculation to suggest environmental causes, he said. If anything, he said, the environment is better than years ago. The Hanford Site (former nuclear reservation) is less detrimental, pesticides are safer and pesticides and fertilizers are used less, he said.

“All currently registered pesticides of any significant use have been thoroughly tested for birth defects in reproduction studies. Nothing like what is being reported has been reported in the data submitted to the EPA,” Felsot said.

The Center for Disease Control compared the Washington cases with babies in the same area with no problems, found no differences and concluded “no factors they could measure were associated with the birth defects,” Felsot said. “The CDC ended its article reminding physicians to talk to patients (mothers) about including sufficient folic acid in their diets.”



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