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Birth Defect Investigation in Eastern Washington Proves Inconclusive

Since 2010, anencephaly has shown up in Washington’s Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties at a rate about four times the national average.

December 14, 2016

An investigation into a rare birth defect affecting babies in Eastern Washington has come to an end. The findings have left more questions than answers.

Disease clusters are notoriously hard to investigate. That proved to be the case for a rare and fatal birth defect in three Washington counties.

Since 2010, anencephaly has shown up in Washington’s Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties at a rate about four times the national average. In many cases, mothers had a miscarriage. When babies survived to term, their brains and skulls did not form completely.

Most recently there have been four cases of anencephaly with estimated delivery dates in 2016 and 2017, bringing the total to 45 cases since 2010.

At a meeting in Kennewick, the health department asked people to raise concerns about a rare birth defect. Since 2010, there have been 32 cases of anencephaly in central Washington. Officials are working out their next steps. Credit: Courtney Flatt

State health officials have worked with the Centers for Disease Control, nurses, doctors and researchers from other states that have seen similar anencephaly clusters. After almost three years of sifting through data and interviewing mothers -- often months after their pregnancies -- an advisory committee leading the investigation has come up with no real answers.

Washington epidemiologist Cathy Wasserman said the committee feels they’ve eliminated many popular theories.

“Our case control analyses and interviews have not identified a single preventable cause that we can act on,” Wasserman said.

The panel reported that it could not find links to pesticide exposure, nitrate pollution in drinking water, or exposure to Hanford radiation.

Mothers also appeared to be taking the right amount of folic acid vitamins at the right time -- a lack of folic acid is a common cause for these types of defects.

Officials said they would continue to monitor the number of anencephaly cases through January 2018. They also plan to continue advising women of childbearing age to take folic acid supplements.


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I follow stories like this because I'm involved with a non-profit called the National Birth Defect Registry. The registry collects data from families to track any links between birth defects and toxic exposures or other factors. It looks like a pretty thorough investigation was done here; however, the inconclusive results of the study must be worrisome for the parents involved. For any families that might be interested, you can learn how to sign up at the registry at