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Study: Fetal deaths spiked 58%, fertility dropped during Flint water crisis

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Fred Jala
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A new study from the University of Kansas says decreased fertility and a higher number of miscarriages for women living in Flint during the water crisis.

Researchers from the University of Kansas and West Virginia University say lead-contaminated water in Flint may be linked to lower fertility rates and higher fetal death rates in the city.

The researchers compared the birth and death certificates in Flint to more than a dozen other comparable Michigan cities, like Detroit, before and after the city's water switch in April 2014.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found fertility rates decreased by 12% among Flint women 15-49 years old, while fetal death rates increased by 58%. (Fetal death refers to a miscarriage that occurs after 20 weeks. The study did not include miscarriages before 20 weeks.)

"This represents a couple hundred fewer children born that otherwise would have been," study co-author David Slusky noted in a press release.

Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech says the expectation was that an adverse pregnancy trend was happening during the Flint water crisis, but there hadn't been any major study published to back the claim.

"At first glance, it does look like a very credible effort. And this has to be taken seriously, and it is. I'm sure that others are trying to actively reproduce the results as we speak," Edward said, "This is a case where all of the data is on the table, their methodology is clear, and the result can be checked."

Dan Grossman co-authored the study. He’s an assistant economics professor at West Virginia University.

“The reason we sort of set out to do this project is that we wanted to more fully account for the costs of this water switch. And you know we think fully understanding the decrease in fertility rates and increases in fetal deaths helps us better understand some of the non-monetary costs of this water switch,” Grossman said.

He says he and his co-author decided to look into the numbers about a year and a half ago. They used detailed vital statistics from the state of Michigan between 2008-2015, GIS data on lead pipes compiled by the University of Michigan-Flint, and compared the data in Flint to 15 other large cities in the state.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has also been looking into the impact the water crisis may have had on pregnancy rates and related health issues.

MDHHS spokeswoman Angela Minicucci said, "MDHHS has been working with community partners to look at similar data and will be releasing this analysis once it is complete. As we just learned of the publication of this particular research, we still need to review the University of Kansas’ study and findings."

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha said she hasn't had a chance to review the study yet but believes a new registry may be able to shed more light on the data.

"Lead has known maternal fetal complications. This study adds to our understanding of the ugly nature of the Flint Water Crisis and we are looking forward to reviewing the study's findings. It is yet more evidence, yet another call to action, that as a nation we must eliminate preventable lead exposure.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect that the researchers' findings show a correlation between the Flint water switch and higher fetal deaths/lower fertility, but that correlation does not necessarily mean that the water caused those problems.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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