KENNEWICK, Wash. -- Over the past three years, a rare birth defect has shown up Central Washington at a rate that's four times the national average. Now, the state health department is turning to the public for clues about what’s causing the fatal condition.
Anencephaly is a rare, fatal birth defect. During the fourth week of pregnancy, the baby’s brain and skull don’t form completely. If babies survive the pregnancy they often live for only a few days.
So far, the health department has found no specific cause for the high number of cases in Benton, Franklin, and Yakima counties.
At a meeting Wednesday night in Kennewick, the health department asked people to raise concerns officials may not have considered yet.
“We don’t want to get to the end [of an investigation], and have people in the community say, ‘Yeah, but… You didn’t notice…” said state epidemiologist Juliet Van Eenwyk.
Audience members asked several questions about what could be causing the defects: Could pesticides be the cause? Are similar symptoms showing up in animals? What about lead and arsenic in the soil?
To many of these questions health department officials responded by saying they didn’t know but would look into it.
Sara Barron is the registered nurse who first alerted the health department to the large number of cases in the area. She asked several questions at the meeting.
“This can’t go on. If there is a smoking gun, we need to find it and stop it now,” Barron said.
Barron said she sees this meeting as the next step forward.
Twenty-three babies in Benton, Franklin, and Yakima counties have been born with anencephaly from 2010 to 2013.
Candelaria Murillo is a mother living in Kennewick and is originally from Sunnyside. She also is a youth advocate with Columbia legal services. She says she wants to help get to the bottom of what’s causing the defect.
“Who can be more vulnerable than a child that doesn’t have a voice and a mom that’s going through this process? … If we could help these children in any way, even with our questions,” Murillo said.
Investigators at the Washington Department of Health have looked into numerous known risk factors, like nitrates in well water, obesity, and Hispanic ethnicity.
"We were able to look at quite a lot in the medical record, and the short story is, after looking at all these things, we found no differences between women who had healthy babies and the women whose babies were affected," Van Eenwyk said.
The state is forming an advisory group to help decide what to do next. Right now, doctors say the best prevention is for women of childbearing age to take folic acid.