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The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has had terrible consequences for residents' health

The Data Team on September 27, 2017

IF YOU have to pick a single city to illustrate the precipitous economic decline of America’s rust belt, look no further than Flint, Michigan. “Vehicle City”, as it is nicknamed, used to be home to one the biggest car-factory hubs in the country. But as American manufacturing jobs disappeared, Flint’s economy collapsed. In April 2014 the city’s financial woes spawned a public-health crisis. Desperate to cut costs, Flint’s cash-strapped municipal government switched its water supplier from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, which takes its water from Lake Huron, to the Flint River. Unfortunately, the new water supply was contaminated with high levels of lead, a highly toxic element that can cause health problems ranging from heart disease to brain damage.

Immediately after Flint changed its provider, the city’s residents began complaining about the colour and smell of the water coming out of their taps. The municipal government assured them that there was no cause for concern. It took over a year for the public to learn the extent of the contamination. In September 2015 Mona Hanna-Attisha, a paediatrician, said she had found that the level of lead in the blood of infants from Flint had doubled since the city started getting its water from the river.

Two years later, the full human cost is coming to light. A new study by Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of the University of Kansas shows that in the year following the city’s change of water supplier, the number of births per woman aged 15-49 fell by 12% compared with the average over the previous eight years, while fetal deaths rose by 58%. Moreover, the authors warn that the latter figure may be an underestimate, since their data account for neither abortions nor miscarriages that occur in the first 20 weeks of gestation, and do not cover all hospitals. Lead poisoning is also known to contribute to poor academic outcomes and increased crime rates. It may take decades for all the consequences of Flint’s water crisis to become known.

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