Lead in water leading to problems with fertility and childbirth in Flint, Michigan

Researchers from the University of Kansas, Department of Economics in a new working paper series in Theoretical and Applied Economics write that with the change in water sources in Flint, Michigan since April 2014, lead exposure to the population has risen.

Since April 2014, the city decided to switch to Flint River water as its primary water source. Health economists Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of Kansas University write that this is turn has lead to effects on childbirth and fertility. The connection however is still not well established.

Water Tower At Flint Water Plant In Flint. Image Credit: Linda Parton / Shutterstock
Water Tower At Flint Water Plant In Flint. Image Credit: Linda Parton / Shutterstock

They used the variations in timing of birth from the records in the region and find that fertility rates have declined by 12 percent. A further look showed that an increase of 58 percent in fetal deaths occurred during this period. Overall health of the babies at birth also reduced at birth due to scarring they find. This was when Flint was compared to the other cities in Michigan. They urge all women who have had a miscarriage, or have had a stillbirth or have a newborn baby born with health complications to register for more information regarding the lead exposure in the region.

Authors call the decline in fertility and the fetal deaths to be a “culling of the least healthy fetuses”. Due to lead exposure these babies might be developing health complications and the least healthy of them might not be making it they explained. This has lead to a “horrifyingly large” number of miscarriages and fetal deaths they write. The paper looks at conceptions between November 2013 through March 2015. They speculate, that had there not be an influence of the poisoned waters from the Flint river, around 198 to 276 more children could have been born.

The decision to use the Flint river water was a temporary measure adopted in April 2014 to save costs while the city was developing a permanent pipeline project to Lake Huron. Right after it was started, the residents of the area began complaining about the appearance of the water and its smell.

However up until 2015, the city authorities tried to convince the users that the water was safe to use and drink. This was followed by rigorous testing by Flint authorities and outside agencies. They found that the water contained lead levels that were dozens to hundreds of times greater than the permissible limits allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. A study in September 2015 also showed that the Flint children had very high levels of lead in their blood. The city then decided to switch back to Lake Huron water the following month.

Effects of lead on children and infants

Lead is a toxic metal and humans on exposure can suffer from several well known health consequences. Lead is a key component in paint, pigments, gasoline, ammunition, batteries, stained glass, solder, roofing materials and some cosmetics and medicines apart from being part of soil and ground water.

Lead poisoning refers to when lead accumulates in the body in the brain, kidneys, liver, bones and teeth and causes severe health problems. Lead exposure is determined by measuring the amount of lead in the blood and no known level of lead exposure is regarded as safe.

Children under 6 years of age are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead poisoning, which causes profound and permanent problems, particularly ones that affect brain development and the nervous system. They are also at risk because they absorb up to five times more lead when exposed than adults do. Children suffer from cognitive deficiencies, behavioral problems, problems with learning etc. on lead exposure.

In adults, lead poisoning can also lead to long-term health issues, including hypertension and kidney damage. Pregnant woman who are exposed to high lead levels are at an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth.

The EPA threshold for lead in drinking water deeming it safe is 15 parts of lead per billion. However the World Health Organization (WHO) says “there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.”

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