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Researchers from the Yale School of Public Health, or YSPH, found that babies born to mothers who were exposed to contaminated water from the Flint River have lower birth weights, a phenomenon especially evident in Black babies. 

In April 2014, Flint officials switched to Flint River water as the local drinking supply to save money. The source was later discovered to have an unsafe level of lead, bacteria and other contaminants. A new YSPH study finds that children born to socio-economically disadvantaged mothers who are exposed to Flint water pollution during pregnancy have lower birth weights. Concluding that this is resulting from systematic racism and will have long-term effects on generations, the research has significant suggestions on how the government should direct its spending. The study was conducted at Yale and other institutions with results published in the Journal of Population Economics. 

“Our study shows that the impact [of the Flint water crisis] is [evident] as early as the beginning of life, and it could be long lasting for decades to come,” Yale professor Xi Chen said. “It has much larger effects towards minority groups.” 

Chen explained the reason for exploring the causal relation between the Flint water crisis and worsened birth outcomes. Birth weight is the single most important indicator of human capital and can be used to predict long-term development, such as performance in school and salary in the job market. Therefore, looking at birth weights of infants born in the Flint area after the water crisis will enable researchers to understand the long-term economic and social effects of water pollution, he said. 

The research found that on average, the frequency of low birth rate increased by 15.5 percent compared to the national composite, and that babies were born more than an ounce lighter. 

In contrast to previous epidemiological research, Chen and his colleagues used the Synthetic Control Method  — a statistical method to evaluate comparative case studies — to establish a causal relationship between the Flint water crisis and lower birth weight. They created a simulation of Flint using the CDC vital statistics data of 162 cities in America very similar to Flint but not influenced by water contamination. They then compared it to the actual Flint data. Using this method, the demonstrated difference was attributed to the Flint water crisis instead of other factors, suggesting that the worsened birth outcome is causally related to Flint water contamination. 

In addition, the research is different from other analyses in that it recognizes the water crisis affects different groups differently. The team found that the advantaged mothers, who have higher education or are from “majority groups,” experienced almost no influence because they are more inclined to buy bottled water after the crisis and therefore have avoided exposure to lead contamination. Disadvantaged mothers who have lower education levels or are from minority groups, however, have been severely affected. 

“They had very little room for adaptation because buying the [bottled] water needed knowledge and also the money,” Chen said.

Chen stressed that the researchers’ estimation is conservative as the numbers only reflect average effects in Flint, and it is important to know that people who suffer social and economic disadvantages are more vulnerable to water pollution. 

Tulane University professor Rui Wang, who co-authored the study, could not be reached for comment at the time of publication. 

Wang told the News in 2019, when the working paper was published, that some infants included in the sample were likely born to mothers who had avoided drinking from contaminated public water supplies, so their finding might be an understatement. 

The consequences of the Flint water crisis are significant and long-term. Chen said that these health disparities starting from the early stage of life may lead to further enlarged gaps in health and well-being throughout the course of life. 

The low-birth-weight babies who were born in 2014 are now students in primary schools. Chen told the News that Michigan schools have reported more school suspensions and juvenile delinquency. Recently, the Michigan state government has built special education programs to “train” the children who experience brain issues due to the high lead level in the body, which can reduce impulse control. 

The finding also suggests the presence of systematic racism, or structural racism. 

“Systematic racism means it is not individualized.” Chen said, “It’s not like someone was discriminated against by others, but there are systemic issues like education, housing, water sources and employment, all these kinds of social welfare discriminate against the minority groups.” 

Addressing this issue requires systematic changes, yet even fixing one component is costly, according to Chen. He said that as many as 3000 municipalities in the United States have above average lead levels. The Biden administration has spent $55 billion to fix the aging pipes system. This current budget can only fund a small proportion of improvements.

Despite the high expense, Chen emphasized that this is something the government should focus on for moral reasons. 

“If we can address this systematic racism and associated social inequity issues, then we can narrow the gap between babies born to Black mothers and white mothers,” Chen said. “The inequality at the beginning of life is most unjustifiable because this is not the choice of individuals. So if we have $1 of public resources, the government should prioritize to level the playfield at the beginning of life and try to make that more equitable.” 

Professor Xun Li from Wuhan University, co-author of the study, said that governments have the responsibility of providing quality social welfare and public good and should pay more attention to disadvantaged groups. 

Li said that the researchers started researching this topic in 2015. For future studies, he suggested looking into those children’s academic and career performance and focusing on the bigger picture of how the environment affects humans. 

In 2014, approximately 1500 babies were born in the Flint area.

HANNAH QU