As the city faces a severe ongoing water crisis, Flint, Michigan is now experiencing a fertility crisis.
There are fewer babies being born in Flint. A month ago, Mother Jones reported that residents experienced fewer pregnancies and higher fetal deaths, including miscarriages. since April 2014. A working paper by Kansas University economics professor David Slusky and West Virginia University economics professor Daniel Grossman studied health statistics in Flint over the past decade and compared them to 15 other cities in Michigan. The report revealed fertility rates dropped 12 percent and fetal deaths increased by 58 percent.
Three and a half years ago, the city began to draw its water supply from the Flint River, which was undergoing a pipeline project, the Washington Post reports. This decision hoped to save money, but residents quickly complained about the odor and color of the water. Officials at Flint told its residents the water was safe to drink in 2015, despite the clear hazards residents had been complaining about. The crisis has not yet been resolved.
While many Flint residents may have access to resources, such as water filters and bottled water, at clinics, many don’t receive important medical information, stresses Alexandra Markham, a public health activist based in Grand Rapids, Michigan who has done work on the ground in Flint, in an interview with Helloflo.
“Lead crosses the placenta,” explained Markham. “I heard many times, ‘It’s okay, I was pregnant then.’ Not okay, those babies were exposed as well.”
The exposure to babies can be a result of previous exposures to moms. Markham stated, “During pregnancy it is more likely lead that has been stored in the bones and teeth from previous exposure will leach back into the blood, thus exposing the baby. Typically this is a result of dietary deficiencies.”
This isn’t the first time poor reproductive health has been connected to hazardous environmental factors. According to U.S. News, research shows that infertility, miscarriages, and other birth defects have been linked to exposure to toxic chemicals from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
While toxic chemicals are apart of everyday life, certain demographics are prone to higher exposure than others. The National Women’s Law Center explains, “Because they are more likely to be low-wage workers, women and people of color are disproportionately exposed to many hazardous chemicals, including agricultural pesticides, home cleaning products, industrial cleaning products, and chemicals used in hair and nail salons.” That’s why it’s not a surprise that many citizens of Flint, a city that has been exposed to dangerous toxins through a polluted water supply, have experienced reproductive health problems.
“The troubling part, aside from the fact that these discussions were necessary at all as lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable, is the fact that this information was already available,” Markham mentions. “These were not lessons learned in Flint and yet the people affected did not know.”
Many would refer to this phenomenon as environmental racism, or what the Atlantic refers to as the New Jim Crow. Discrimination in public planning causes communities of color, especially Black communities, to face disproportionate rates of lead poisoning, asthma, and other types of environmental harm. According to Michigan Radio, Black Americans make up nearly 60 percent of the population of Flint.
“The crisis with Flint’s lead poisoned drinking water is terrible, with not only obvious health effects, but ones that may not be apparent for years,” explains Dr. Mark Payson, Medical Director with Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine Northern Virginia, in an interview with Helloflo. “This report is a perfect case study of what can go wrong when there are not appropriate oversights of pubic health and environmental concerns. Having respect and concern for our environment, from working to limit climate change to reducing toxins in our environment, is critical to both our personal health and the health (and even existence of) our children.”
In many cases, environmental racism is especially evident during natural disasters. The Huffington Post reports flooding always hits low-income neighborhoods of color the hardest, especially most recently during Hurricane Harvey. While weather itself doesn’t see race, the faces behind urban planning do. Now the fourth-largest city in the United States, Houston doesn’t have any environmental zoning laws, just deeds which allow property owners to control and dictate how their land will be used. Wealthy property owners then have the power to decide where power plants go and don’t go, as well as which neighborhoods have their flood guards installed first.
Many communities of color live in close proximity to energy plants, which lead to serious health problems. For example, Scientific American reports people who live closest to coal plants disproportionately tend to be poor and/or people of color. These families are are vulnerable to high exposure of mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon dioxide emitting from the plants. As a result, they experience high rates of asthma attacks, heart problems, and other diseases linked to environmental pollution.
“Don’t ask why, you already know why,” emphasizes Markham. “Look for the money. It’s what made them switch the water supply. It’s what makes them take care of one neighborhood over another.”