Lead in Flint’s water tied to decline in birth rate

The lead contamination of the Flint, Mich., water system that began in 2014 has shown up in the blood of thousands of children across the city, and public health officials are keeping a watch out for possible health and behavioral effects. A new study by two researchers points to one possible, and troubling, effect: declining fertility and poorer neonatal health.

According to the research of health economics professors Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of the University of Kansas, after the city’s water source was switched to the Flint River in 2014, fertility rates among Flint residents decreased by 12 percent, while fetal death rates increased by 58 percent. (PDF)

Grossman and Slusky used vital statistics data, including detailed information on every woman who gave birth in Michigan between 2008 and 2015, to track changes in the fertility rate and birth outcomes among Flint residents compared with those in other parts of the state. In the period between April 2014, when Flint began sourcing its drinking water from the river, and September 2015, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder first acknowledged there was a problem with lead contamination in the water, the researchers found that the rate of pregnancies in Flint took a considerable dip, while elsewhere in Michigan — where the drinking water was unaffected — the fertility rates remained relatively stable.

People gather in February 2016 for a mile-long march to highlight the push for clean water in Flint. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

To rule out the possibility that the pregnancy rate declined because the residents of Genesee County were having sex less often, Grossman and Slusky consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, which reported that sexual activity in Flint’s Genesee County actually increased in this time period. (The survey reports on a range of time uses, including “personal or private activities” including “having sex,” “making out,” “cuddling partner in bed” and “spouse gave me a massage.”)

“While this is only suggestive evidence,” they write, “it supports our conclusion that the reduction in the conception rate is not driven by a reduction in sexual activity.”

The research also found that babies born in Flint after the water supply changed were 150 grams (5.29 ounces) lighter, and gained less weight, than babies born in other parts of the state.

At least one other study found similar effects from…

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