By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
FLINT, Michigan – The lead-poisoned water of Flint, Michigan has had a major effect on the fertility rate in the city according to a working paper by Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of Kansas University. The city of Flint switched to the lead-poisoned Flint River in 2014 in order to cut costs. However, the result was a “culling of the least healthy fetuses” leading to a “horrifyingly large” increase in both miscarriages and fetal deaths according to the paper’s authors.
In the paper, the authors estimate that among babies conceived from November 2013 to March 2015, “between 198 and 276 more children would have been born had Flint not enacted the switch in water.” Grossman and Slusky found that pregnancies that lasted at least 20 weeks but did not result in birth increased by 58%. The authors also found that fertility rates dropped by 12% compared to other economically similar cities in Michigan that did not have a switch in their water source.
The authors argue that the change in water supply has effects beyond just infants. They believe the drop in fertility is evidence of the effect of lead on the health of potential newborns in utero. It is important to note that the authors list a number of limitations their study had. Lead builds up in the body over time so focusing on neonatal health could underestimate the overall effects of lead on human health and development. There are also several other contaminates that could have been in the water and affected the results.
But lead is definitively one of the contaminates of the water. According to Reuters, the water from the river is so corrosive that it stripped the city pipes of lead and contaminated the city’s drinking water. Following the switch to the Flint River, residents began complaining about the appearance and odor of the water. Yet, the city assured residents that the water was safe to drink into 2015.
Water utilities typically point out that although a person has higher lead levels in their blood, the person can’t say definitively what caused the increase. They argue it could have been dust or old paint or lead contaminated dirt. However, most of the effects of water contaminated with lead can only be observed through analysis of the population.
Grossman and Slusky conclude that “failure to provide safe drinking water has large health implications.” It has been come common knowledge that children who have been exposed to lead can face harmful consequences. Some of these consequences are increased antisocial behavior, lower educational attainment, cognitive deficiencies, and many other problems that affect the liver, kidneys and brain.
What is not as well-known is the effects of lead on fetal health. Grossman and Slusky’s literature review shows that pregnant women exposed to lead are linked to “fetal death, prenatal growth abnormalities, reduced gestational period, and reduced birth weight.” At the time the lead exposure began, many Flint residents were unaware that there was lead in the water at all. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child because lead can cross the placental barrier. According to the World Health Organization, there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered to be safe.
For more information, please see:
Business Insider – Fetal Deaths Rose 58% After Flint Switched to Lead-Poisoned Water – 22 September 2017
Huffington Post – Flint Water Crisis Likely Increased Fetal Deaths, Study Shows – 21 September 2017
Washington Post – Flint’s Lead-Poisoned Water had a ‘Horrifyingly Large’ Effect on Fetal Deaths, Study Finds – 21 September 2017
Working Paper – The Effect of an Increase in Lead in the Water System on Fertility and Birth Outcomes: The Case of Flint, Michigan – 7 August 2017
Center for Disease Control and Prevention – Health Problems Caused by Lead – 17 April 2017
Business Insider – Michigan is Urging Infants Take Lead Screening After Flint Water Crisis – 17 November 2016
World Health Organization – Lead Poisoning and Health – September 2016