Fetal deaths up 58 percent since Flint water crisis, pregnancies down
The study by assistant economics professors David Slusky at Kansas University and Daniel Grossman at West Virginia University examined local and state health records, comparing Flint to the rest of Michigan between 2008 and 2015.
The study contradicts findings reported by the state Department of Health and Human Services, which said there was no “evidence that indicates the water switch” contributed to higher fetal death rates, or a decrease in fertility rates during that period in the city of Flint.
FLINT WATER CRISIS
April 2014 was when the city of Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to Flint River in a money-saving effort.
Officials failed to treat the water, causing dangerous levels of bacteria and the pipes to corrode, many of which are made from lead. Cases of Legionnaire’s Disease also increased in the area at this time, with 12 people dying as a result.
Lead exposure can cause brain damage in children, who are at risk of developmental delays, lower IQ and behavioural issues. It can damage a fetus’s development and can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. Fertility can also be affected.
The study examined birth rates and found, "Flint's numbers fell off a cliff, and the rest of the cities stayed pretty much constant," Slusky told the Detroit Free Press.
The study looked at women of childbearing age and the number of births to calculate each city’s birth rates.
Researchers also looked at Google search data to see if the drop was due to Flint residents’ fear of conceiving because of the risks the water posed, but found no increase in searches on lead and lead poisoning until September 2015, when officials finally admitted there was an issue.
"During most of our time period, when the city and state officials were saying there was no problem, we didn't see any evidence of knowledge about lead in the water," Slusky said.
Officials had denied there was a problem once people began to complain, and the admission only came after a local pediatrician’s research revealed rising lead levels in Flint children.
The water supply was changed in October 2015, months after the Environmental Protection Agency and Virginia Tech researchers altered them to the problem.
“We find no evidence of avoidance behavior,” Slusky said. "Either Flint residents were unable to conceive children, or women were having more miscarriages during this time.”
The study found fetal deaths increased by 58 percent in Flint since April 2014. The available state statistics only cover deaths after 20 weeks and which take place in hospitals, so the available data is limited.
"This represents a couple hundred fewer children born that otherwise would have been," Slusky told Kansas University Today.
Babies born since the switch was made were close to 150 grams lighter, and gained less weight. They were also born half a week earlier.
The study found a slightly higher ratio of female births after the crisis. Male fetuses are more fragile, according to other studies.
The statistics are similar to those found in a study by Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech on fetal deaths and birth rates in Washington D.C after residents were exposed to lead in drinking water from 2000-2004.
The study, published as part of the Kansas University Economics Department Working Papers Series in Theoretical and Applied Economics, is not yet peer reviewed.
A co-author of the study, Daniel Grossman, assistant professor of economics at West Virginia University, spoke to RT America about his findings, which were discovered with data provided by the state of Michigan.
When asked how he and his partner determined that the lead crisis contributed to the 58 percent jump in fetal deaths, Grossman said: “We compare Flint both before the water change, and after the water change, to other cities in Michigan.”
"What we find is that fetal death rates increased in Flint following the water change, but really, we see no change at all in the rest of other parts of Michigan."
In relation to decreased fertility rates, Grossman was asked if there were other variables he considered that could have contributed to his study’s findings.
“We try to look at fetal deaths, itself, which the increase in fetal death rates, suggests that the lead plays a role in this.”
“But I should point out, that would only account for very small percentage in the change in fertility rates that we find.”
Grossman said that the findings in the study should prompt the state of Michigan to come to the same conclusions he came to.
“We find that there's several hundred fewer children than we would have expected to have been born over this time period, that could lead to major changes in terms of funding from the state for education.”
Grossman also said that pregnant women exposed to the change in the water source may have children who experience worse health outcomes later on in life.
“These are things we should be worried about going forward, but we can't really quantify at this time.”