Research Indicates Infertility, Miscarriage and Poor Birth Outcomes for Flint Families after Drinking Polluted Water

drinking water.jpgThe lack of clean water for people to drink in Flint, Michigan has sadly been making the news for several years now.  In April 2014, the city of Flint changed the source of their drinking water and began to pull water from the heavily polluted Flint River in order to provide the drinking and household water needs of the community.  This was done as a temporary solution while work was undertaken to construct a stable connection to a permanent water source.  This Flint River water had a very dangerous level of lead. Lead is a known toxin that causes developmental delays in children, including cognitive deficiencies, increased antisocial behavior, lower educational attainment, and permanent damage to the brain, kidneys, and liver.

Shortly after the Flint River water began to be utilized, people in Flint  began to report that their water was discolored and had a bad smell.  Despite their complaints, government officials assured the residents that their water was safe to consume.  This turned out not to be true and the unsafe lead levels were confirmed many months later.  Testing results indicated that the water being delivered to Flint residents contained unhealthy and toxic levels of lead.  Ultimately, the water source was changed to Lake Huron fresh water in October 2015.

When the children of Flint were tested, the number of area children with high lead levels in their blood had roughly doubled after the water source changed to the Flint River.  Not only did the children of Flint suffer the consequences of drinking water with high levels of lead, but researchers believe area parents who were pregnant or conceived during this time also faced significant negative consequences, including fetal death, prenatal growth abnormalities, premature birth and low birth weight babies.

In a new working paper, The Effect of an Increase in Lead in the Water System on Fertility and Birth Outcomes: The Case of Flint, Michigan, researchers explored the effects of drinking the Flint River water (with its increased levels of lead) on fertility and birth outcomes.  It is known that maternal lead levels cross the placenta and impact the fetus.  Analysis of the fertility rates and birth outcomes for the Flint population was compared with other Michigan county populations unaffected by drinking water with high lead levels. Some of the observed changes include an increase in fetal death rates in Flint but no change in other areas following the water change.  Babies born in Flint were nearly 150 grams lighter than in other areas, were born ½ a week earlier and gained 5 grams per week less than babies in other areas, in the period before birth.  A substantial decrease in fertility rates in Flint for births conceived between October 2013, which persisted through the end of 2015.  It is estimated that people living in Flint gave birth to 7.5 fewer infants per 1,000 women aged 15-49 compared to control counties, who were not impacted by the water change.  There was an increase of 58% in fetal death rates in the affected area.

A registry has been created that asks individuals to come forward who have suffered miscarriages, fetal death, premature birth and other complications of pregnancy that may be a consequence of drinking polluted water.  People may not be fully aware of the impact of drinking water with a high lead content on their fertility, the fetus or their pregnancies.  As more of the population becomes aware of this newly created registry, they may come forward to be identified and included in future research to determine the impact of Flint River water.  Some potential issues include the fact that the effect of lead in the body builds up over time.  There may also be other contaminants in the polluted water that also harm fetuses, infants, and children. Regardless, the high levels of lead in the water have been and will continue to be a public health issue for the Flint community, with serious repercussions for maternal-infant health.  The paper discussed here is the first study of the Flint water change on fertility and birth outcomes. The researchers suggest that "more lax regulatory environment in the context of drinking water may have substantial unforeseen effects on maternal and infant health, including large reductions in the number of births." 

A municipality was slow to respond to resident concerns.  A community was not provided with safe drinking water and in fact told that the water that was provided was safe when it was not.  This has now created a situation where there has been a reduction in birth numbers, a loss of fertility across the population and a host of poor pregnancy and birth outcomes that will create future problems for both parents and their children.  While this may be the first study of its kind to examine the public health impact of polluted water on the citizens of Flint, Michigan, it will no doubt be the last. It should be noted that Flint, Michigan, according to 2016 Census estimates, is 53 percent African American. In addition, 45 percent of Flint's population live in poverty.   Recent census data indicates that it is the nation's poorest city.  I have no doubt this played a significant role in how this situation was handled.  That saddens me deeply.

References

DeWitt, R. D. (2017). Pediatric lead exposure and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, 30(2), 43-46.

Grossman, D., & Slutsky, D. J. (2017). The Effect of an Increase in Lead in the Water System on Fertility and Birth Outcomes: The Case of Flint, Michigan (No. 17-25).

Ingraham, C. (2017, September 21). Flint's lead-poisoned Water Had a 'Horrifyingly-large' Effect on Fetal Deaths, Study Shows.  Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/09/21/flints-lead-poisoned-water-had-a-horrifyingly-large-effect-on-fetal-deaths-study-finds/?utm_term=.7e14464d8944

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