DETROIT — Flint saw fewer pregnancies, and a higher number of fetal deaths, during the period Michigan women and their unborn children were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, according to a new research study that reviewed health records from Flint and the state.
Fertility rates decreased by 12% among Flint women, and fetal death rates increased by 58%, after April 2014, according to research by assistant professors and health economists David Slusky at Kansas University and Daniel Grossman at West Virginia University. The pair examined vital statistics data for Flint and the rest of the state of Michigan from 2008 to 2015, zoomed down to the census-tract level.
That post-April 2014 time period is significant, because that’s when — in an effort to save money — the city of Flint switched from water supplied by the city of Detroit to using the Flint River as a drinking water source, without adding needed anti-corrosives to the water. Lead levels in drinking water supplies spiked as a result.
The problem, however, wasn’t acknowledged by Gov. Rick Snyder and state health and environmental officials until late September 2015 — months after Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency manager Miguel Del Toral alerted state and federal officials of their concerns, and weeks after Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha’s own research showed children’s blood-lead levels were rising in Flint.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system, causing miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as infertility in both men and women. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some women used lead pills to terminate pregnancies.
Additionally, state health officials confirmed 91 cases, including 12 deaths, from Legionnaire’s Disease, a respiratory infection, in Genesee County in a 17-month period in 2014-15. Though not conclusively tied to the Flint water crisis, cases spiked after the city switched its water source.
Flint has since switched back to Great Lakes Water Authority-supplied water.
There is no safe level of lead in the body, but the impacts of lead are considered most severe on the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses. It can lead to lower intelligence, behavioral problems and diminished life achievement, according to researchers. And the damage is irreversible; it cannot be undone.