Fetal deaths up 58 percent since Flint water crisis, pregnancies down

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The Flint water crisis has caused fetal deaths to jump 58 percent, while birth rates in the area have dropped 12 percent, a new study suggests.

The study by assistant economics professors David Slusky at Kansas University and Daniel Grossman at West Virginia University examined local and state health records, comparing Flint to the rest of Michigan between 2008 and 2015.



April 2014 was when the city of Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to Flint River in a money-saving effort.

Officials failed to treat the water, causing dangerous levels of bacteria and the pipes to corrode, many of which are made from lead. Cases of Legionnaire’s Disease also increased in the area at this time, with 12 people dying as a result.

Lead exposure can cause brain damage in children, who are at risk of developmental delays, lower IQ and behavioural issues. It can damage a fetus’s development and can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. Fertility can also be affected.



The study examined birth rates and found, “Flint’s numbers fell off a cliff, and the rest of the cities stayed pretty much constant,” Slusky told the Detroit Free Press.

The study looked at women of childbearing age and the number of births to calculate each city’s birth rates.

Researchers also looked at Google search data to see if the drop was due to Flint residents’ fear of conceiving because of the risks the water posed, but found no increase in searches on lead and lead poisoning until September 2015, when officials finally admitted there was an issue.

“During most of our time period, when the city and state officials were saying there was no problem, we didn’t see any evidence of knowledge about lead in the water,” Slusky said.

Officials had denied there was a problem once people began to complain, and the admission only came after a local pediatrician’s research revealed rising lead levels in Flint children.  

The water supply was changed in October 2015, months after the Environmental Protection Agency and Virginia Tech researchers altered them to the problem.

“We find no evidence of avoidance behavior,” Slusky said. “Either Flint residents were unable to conceive children, or women were having more miscarriages during this time.”



The study found fetal deaths increased by 58 percent in Flint since April 2014. The available state statistics only cover deaths after 20 weeks and which take place in hospitals, so the available data is limited.

“This represents a couple hundred fewer children born that otherwise would have been,” Slusky told Kansas University Today.

Babies born since the switch was made were close to 150 grams lighter, and gained less weight. They were also born half a week earlier.

The study found a slightly higher ratio of female births after the crisis. Male fetuses are more fragile, according to other studies.

The statistics are similar to those found in a study by Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech on fetal deaths and birth rates in Washington D.C after residents were exposed to lead in drinking water from 2000-2004.

The study, published as part of the Kansas University Economics Department Working Papers Series in Theoretical and Applied Economics, is not yet peer reviewed.