JUNEAU -- A state legislator convinced that vitamin D deficiencies pose a serious public health issue in sunshine-starved Alaska wants to test all newborns born here over the course of a year to collect hard data on the nutrient levels.
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, keeps Costco-sized bottles of vitamin D in his office for anyone who may be lacking and plans to hand them out to fellow legislators, as he's done in the past.
He began looking into the health benefits three years ago after catching a University of California satellite television program about an international vitamin D research conference.
Now he's sponsoring House Bill 90, the vitamin D newborn testing proposal.
"Normally what's thought is that the farther north you are or the farther south you are (like New Zealand) you don't get the sunshine, you don't make the vitamin D. So there's some real problems," Seaton said in introducing his bill.
Health experts agree that vitamin D is an essential nutrient for strong bones. It can be produced in the body when skin is directly exposed to ultraviolet sun rays. The body also can obtain it through certain foods, including salmon and fortified milk, and vitamin supplements.
Seaton's measure had its first hearing Thursday before a largely receptive Health and Social Services Committee, though Chairman Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, raised a number of questions, including whether an Alaska study is even warranted.
Many serious diseases and health problems -- breast cancer and colon cancer, diabetes and heart attacks, falls and influenza, even suicide -- are associated with vitamin D deficiencies, according to studies cited by Seaton. He bound them to make easy reading for legislators.
His main pitch is the potential benefit for Alaska's children.
A 20-year-long Australian study, published in February 2012 in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, followed children whose mothers had been tested for vitamin D during their second trimester.
At age 5, 13 percent of the children born to mothers with the lowest vitamin D levels had problems with language compared to just 3 percent of the children whose mothers had the highest levels. Even at age 10, after the children had been in school for five years, a significant gap remained. Vitamin D plays a role in brain development, other studies have found.
"The implication from this 2012 study might be huge for us up here," Seaton said.
Another 2012 study, in Spain, found that 14-month-olds whose mothers had higher vitamin D levels when pregnant scored higher on mental and motor skill tests.
Research shows that people need to pay attention to vitamin D, said Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River and one of the bill co-sponsors. "It made me a believer."
But Dr. Ward Hurlburt, the state's chief medical officer, warned the committee that the only conclusive evidence of vitamin D's benefits relates to bone health -- preventing osteoporosis and rickets and perhaps reducing falls and broken bones among the elderly.
The National Institutes of Health and other credible organizations have not found that high levels of vitamin D can prevent most of diseases discussed by advocates, he said. Hurlburt said he has analyzed some of the research cited by Seaton and in particular found flaws in a study associating low levels of vitamin D to suicide.
"Even in the far north, most people don't have a deficiency problem because of the storage of vitamin D in fat and the liver and skin," according to the National Institutes of Health, Hurlburt said in an interview,
Seaton questions whether Alaskans do absorb enough vitamin D because of daylight that shrinks to little or none in winter. In the summer, residents often wear long sleeves to protect against mosquitoes or the chill of a June day. And when it's hot or when on vacation, most people wear sunscreen, protecting the skin from harmful rays but also shielding it from vitamin D absorption.
The state Department of Health and Social Services hasn't taken an official position on the bill. Nor has Gov. Sean Parnell.
Hurlburt said he doesn't see any problem with determining the levels of vitamin D in newborns if the information can be obtained without much cost.
About 11,000 babies are born each year in Alaska. Seaton proposes to make the tests mandatory but allow parents to opt out. He estimated 10,000 babies would be tested during the one-year study period.
The tests would be done at birth, at the same time as tests already done for genetic problems, and would involve collecting two drops of blood from the umbilical cord and placing it on a card to be analyzed, Seaton said.
"This doesn't require taking blood or a heel stick or anything else from a baby," Seaton said.
He's working on an arrangement with GrassrootsHealth, a public health organization based in San Diego County, to handle the tests for $30 each, much less than the cost if the state did the work directly, he said.
GrassrootsHealth conducts research and educates people about what it calls a vitamin D deficiency epidemic. The Alaska project would be a narrow look and would be overseen by a pediatrics professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, said GrassrootsHealth director Carole Baggerly.
Under the legislative proposal, children would not be followed over time, Seaton said. The findings would be reported by region, he said. Barrow might have very different results from Juneau.
Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, said the educational implications of vitamin D deficiencies may warrant further research by the University of Alaska. It's interested, Seaton said.
Higgins, a dentist, asked who paid for the studies that Seaton presented. Seaton said he didn't know but would find out. He noted that vitamin D is not patented so there's no pharmaceutical company with a financial interest in paying for research. The bottles that he gives to legislators cost just $12 for a one-and-a-half year supply, he said.
Higgins also said he wanted to see the study design.
In 2011, Seaton sponsored a resolution, which passed, urging the state Department of Health and Social Services to promote vitamin D and investigate possible health benefits. He said the health department produced a public service announcement, and the Department of Administration ensured that state employees could get free vitamin D testing. But little else happened, he said.
Even if the study finds deficient levels, what good will come of it? Higgins asked.
"You can't force anybody to take vitamin D," he said.
That's true, Seaton said. But strong evidence showing that Alaskans are deficient may persuade them to do so.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 952-3965.
By LISA DEMER