Study: Flint had fewer births after water contaminated

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Flint recorded fewer births and higher fetal death rates compared to other Michigan communities when the city’s drinking water was contaminated with lead, a newly released report found.

To gauge how the Genesee County city’s switch in April 2014 from Lake Huron water in the Detroit system to the Flint River affected fertility and health, University of Kansas assistant economics professors David Slusky and Daniel Grossman examined birth and death certificates issued in Flint and 15 comparable cities statewide from 2008 through 2015.

Among their findings in a working paper distributed as part of a University of Kansas series: fertility rates fell 12 percent among Flint women and fetal death rates climbed 58 percent.

“This represents a couple hundred fewer children born that otherwise would have been,” Slusky said in a statement.

The report comes as more than a dozen former and current environmental and health officials — including State Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Michigan’s chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells — have been charged, some criminally, for their roles in the water contamination and a Legionnaires’ outbreak linked to at least 12 deaths.

Citing the American Time Use Survey, the Kansas researchers found that Flint residents did not report any less sexual activity during the period of the study. It also ruled out other potential causes for the reduction in fertility and birth rates in Flint, noting that lead leached into the water supply and a high content is detectable in blood.

“General fertility rates in Flint decreased substantially following the water change while health outcomes displayed mixed results, with suggestive evidence of an overall decrease in abnormal conditions and a decrease in birth weight and gestational age,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers also found that babies born in Flint were nearly 150 grams lighter than in other areas and born half a week earlier.

Additionally, the analysis referenced a study by Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards that found “fetal death rates increased and birth rates decreased following the increase of lead in the water in Washington, D.C., from 2000 to 2003.”

Grossman said the study demonstrates the personal impact of the water on Flint residents.

“The important thing is that it’s helping to quantify the non-monetary costs of the water switch, some of the health outcomes of pregnant women,” Grossman said.

Within a month of Edwards and his team’s finding in Flint, Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration announced there was lead contamination in city water and authorized a switch from the Flint River source back to the Detroit water system.

The city now is working to replace nearly 20,000 of all its service lines by 2020.

Last week, research from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering led by Edwards showed that federal standards were being met and that five rounds of citizen-led testing would cease.

Staff Writer Karen Bouffard contributed.