Lead in Flint's water linked to decline in birth rate, study finds

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.

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The Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan, U.S. on February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo
QUALITY REPEAT Running tap water is seen in Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, Michigan May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
QUALITY REPEAT A sign is seen next to a water dispenser at North Western high school in Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, in Michigan May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A combination photo showing mugshots of eight of the nine city and state officials who the Michigan Attorney General charged with crimes related to the Flint, Michigan, U.S. Water Crisis in this image released August 18, 2016. The officials are, top row L-R: Michael Prysby, Adam Rosenthal, Robert Scott and Patrick Cook. Bottom row L-R: Corinne Miller, Michael Glasgow, Liane Shekter-Smith and Nancy Peeler. Courtesy Michigan Attorney General's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
QUALITY REPEAT A pictures of damaged pipes from Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, is seen as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (2-L) attends a meeting between local and federal authorities with U.S. President Barack Obama, in Flint, Michigan May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tours the Flint Water Plant and Facilities in Flint, Michigan, U.S., September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tours the Flint Water Plant & Facilities in Flint, Michigan, U.S., September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
A glass of filtered water from Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, is seen during a meeting between local and federal authorities with U.S. President Barack Obama in Michigan, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Barack Obama drinks a glass of filtered water from Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, during a meeting will local and federal authorities in Michigan, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Sue Quintanilla, a local resident from Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, offers a glass of water to U.S. President Barack Obama as he delivers remarks at North Western High School in Michigan, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Mari Copeny, 8, of Flint, Michigan, waits in line to enter a hearing room where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will testify before a House Oversight and government Reform hearing on "Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan, Part III" on Capitol Hill in Washington in this March 17, 2016, file photo. Beyond the liability protection enjoyed by government officials, Flint residents who have filed lawsuits over the contaminated water may face challenges in demonstrating that it caused any particular injuries, lawyers and legal experts say. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files
Volunteers distribute bottled water to help combat the effects of the crisis when the city's drinking water became contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan, March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Latoya Ervin puts a blood sample into a machine to test for lead poison levels at a clinic set up to help screen for the effects of the crisis when the city's drinking water became contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Lagretta Hinton (C) gets her blood tested for lead poison levels by Lashae Campbell as she holds her grandson Shawn Bozier at a clinic set up to help screen for the effects of the crisis when the city's drinking water became contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Demonstrators protest over the Flint, Michigan contaminated water crisis outside of the venue where the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate was being held in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Demonstrators protest over the Flint, Michigan contaminated water crisis outside of the venue where the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate was being held in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy are sworn in to testify before a House Oversight and government Reform hearing on "Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan, Part III" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
The front of the Flint Water Plant is seen in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday it was joining a criminal investigation of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, exploring whether laws were broken in a crisis that has captured international attention. Picture taken January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
The front of the Flint Water Plant is seen in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday it was joining a criminal investigation of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, exploring whether laws were broken in a crisis that has captured international attention. Picture taken January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The Flint River is seen flowing thru downtown in Flint, Michigan, December 16, 2015. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Flint resident Ruby Adolph carries bottled water and a replacement water filter she received at a fire station in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. Michigan National Guard members were set to arrive in Flint as soon as Wednesday to join door-to-door efforts to distribute bottled water and other supplies to residents coping with the city's crisis over lead-contaminated drinking water. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Michigan National Guard member David Brown helps to distribute water to a line of residents in their cars in Flint, Michigan January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) (3rd R) leads a news conference about potential legislation in response to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (L-R), Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 28, 2016. A coalition of Flint, Michigan, residents and national advocacy groups on Wednesday added a new front to the ongoing legal battle over the city's water crisis, filing a lawsuit seeking to compel the city and state officials to replace the lead pipes that carry the municipal water supply. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
FLINT, MI - SEPTEMBER 14: A pro-Trump supporter waits for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to arrive for a visit to the Flint Water Treatment Plant September 14, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. While in Flint, Trump will also meet with several ministers from the area. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
A wall of empty water bottles is held as a backdrop as media films while Minister Rigel Dawson, North Central Church of Christ, speaks while calling out Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a press conference outside of the Flint Water Treatment Plant on Sept. 14, 2016 before Trump's visit to Flint, Mich. Residents, activists and officials held 'Water Not Walls' conference to denounce Trump for using the Flint Water Crisis as a campaign prop. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/TNS via Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - SEPTEMBER 14: An anti-Trump protestor wears a shirt that expresses her opinion while waiting for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to arrive for a visit to the Flint Water Treatment Plant September 14, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. While in Flint, Trump will also meet with several ministers from the area. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Placards posted above water fountains warn against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, May 4, 2016, where US President Barack Obama met with locals for a neighborhood roundtable on the drinking water crisis. / AFP / Jim Watson (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - MARCH 17: General view of the Flint River as it passes through downtown on March 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Flint continues to work through the effects of water contamination. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - MARCH 17: Discolored water leaks from a fire hydrant as Flint Fire Department works to put out a fire in an abandoned home on March 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Flint continues to work through the effects of water contamination. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Flint, Michigan resident Desiree Duell, 35, reacts as Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan, not pictured, testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, March 17, 2016. Democrats in Congress Thursday called on Snyder, once a rising Republican star considered as a potential vice president and now fighting to keep his job, to resign for missing the warning signs of lead contamination in Flints water supply. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FLINT, MI - MARCH 17: A City of Flint Sewer Dept. marker flag waves in the wind on a block where lead water lines have started to be replaced on March 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Flint continues to work through the effects of water contamination. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
People wait in line to attend a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy about the tainted water in Flint, Michigan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 17, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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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 widespread lead pollution — in Washington, D.C., from 2000 to 2003. But Grossman and Slusky admit that “the effects of lead in water on fertility and birth outcomes are not well established.”

“At first glance, this is a credible study, and I am sure people are trying to reproduce it as we speak,” Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose the Flint water crisis, told Yahoo News. The study has not yet been peer reviewed but was published last month as part of the University of Kansas Economics Department’s Working Papers Series in Theoretical and Applied Economics.

“The magnitude of the effect seems higher than what I would have expected, but this is why we do science,” Edwards continued. “Our expectations are very often wrong.”

Grossman and Slusky bookend their findings with references to a draft of the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal, released in May, which seeks to cut more than $5 billion, or 31 percent, of funding to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This study is of great importance as the current legislative environment includes calls for a substantial decrease in funding for the EPA which is charged with ensuring localities maintain minimum water standards,” the authors write in their conclusion. “Our results suggest that a 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.”

Among the specific programs at risk of elimination under Trump’s suggested slashes to the EPA are the agency’s Lead Risk-Reduction program as well as several regional offices focused on preserving water systems like the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, and the Great Lakes.

Even under the Obama administration, though, the EPA failed to prevent the Flint water crisis.

(Susan Hedman, former EPA Region 5 Administrator via Getty)

Before resigning ahead of congressional hearings over the water crisis in February 2016, the administrator of EPA’s Region 5, covering the Great Lakes area, Susan Hedman, admitted that she was aware of problems with Flint’s drinking water as early as April 2015. But she did not take any action to investigate Michigan’s drinking water program until November of that year.

“Since Ms. Hedman resigned, I have only positive things to say about the performance of EPA R5,” Virginia Tech’s Edwards told Yahoo News via email. “While reasonable people can differ about priorities for spending, budget cuts will most certainly not help EPA fulfill their important mission.”

Though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has denied plans to close specific regional offices, reports that Region 5 could be shuttered under Trump’s proposed budget have sparked backlash from a bipartisan coalition of Michigan lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Fred Upton and Mike Bishop, Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Flint, and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

“This latest report is truly heartbreaking,” Stabenow said in a statement to Yahoo News.

“This is another terrible reminder of how the water crisis has hurt residents in Flint.”

Request for comment from a member of Region 5’s media relations team was forwarded to EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox, who was unable to obtain approval for a statement on this story by publishing time.

Grossman noted the significance of the study’s findings in light of current threats to the EPA.

“The reason we were able to do this study is that other researchers learned of the high rates of lead in the water,” he told Yahoo News. “One aspect of the proposed cuts to the EPA is to cut areas that are charged with testing water for contaminants. With fewer resources, areas may not know that their water source is contaminated, which can have serious consequences (as our current study reports).”

This January, nearly three years after the city began pumping water from the Flint River in an effort to save money, officials finally declared that the lead in the city’s drinking water had declined to below the legal limit — though many residents remained skeptical.

A total of 15 state and local officials have received criminal charges in relation to the water contamination crisis. Five, including the head of Michigan’s health department, have been indicted for involuntary manslaughter in the death of one of 11 people who died in an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease attributed to bacterial contamination of the city’s water supply, a problem related to, although distinct from, the lead pollution.

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