Officials Can't Explain Continuing Surge Of Birth Defects In Rural Wash. State

| by Jared Keever

Health officials remain stumped as to the cause of a recent spike in severe birth defects in the Yakima Valley region of Washington state.

CNN reported earlier this year that Sara Barron, a nurse at a rural hospital in the region, alerted epidemiologists to the problem in 2012 after she saw two children born with anencephaly in two months. Prior to that she had only seen two such cases in her 30-year career. A friend working at a hospital only 30 miles away told her he had just seen a case of anencephaly as well.

Anencephaly is a birth defect in which children are born missing parts of their brain and skull. It is part of a group of defects known as neural tube defects.

The epidemiologists found that Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties were experiencing neural tube defects at a rate of 8.4 cases per 10,000 births — four times the national average.

That research was conducted in 2012. In 2013 there were seven more cases of anencephaly bringing the rate to 8.7 in 10,000 births according to a recent Associated Press story.

"We're really concerned about the fact that the anencephaly rates are still so high," said Mandy Stahre, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ”We were sort of hoping that this may have been a statistical anomaly or would go away.”

Stahre told NBC News that an advisory committee of national experts will hold “listening sessions” in the counties next month.

"The community members, they live here," she said. "They may be seeing things that we don’t."

To many in the area that does not seem like enough.

“It’s good that they want to know everybody’s thoughts, but what are they doing about it?” asked Andrea Jackman.

Her daughter was born with spina bifida — another neural tube defect — last year. The child is now 7 months old.

“Why are they going to put the time and money into chatting with people who don’t know? Do the research,” Jackman said.

Studies have tied many birth defects to exposure to mold and pesticides. In the agricultural communities of the Yakima Valley pesticide exposure may be one explanation.

Many local residents, though, fear the cause may be leaking nuclear waste tanks from the region’s nearby Hanford nuclear plant. 

Sources: CNN, KOMO News (AP Story), NBC News