There are fewer babies being born in Flint, Michigan — and that’s no coincidence. Recently, 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. The decision aimed 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 other 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.
“Lead crosses the placenta,” explains Markham. “I heard many times, ‘It’s OK, I was pregnant then.’ Not OK. Those babies were exposed as well.”
The babies’ exposure to lead can be a result of their mother’s exposure to the substance. “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,” Markham says.
This isn’t the first time poor reproductive health has been connected to hazardous environmental factors. According to U.S. News & World Report, 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 a part of everyday life, certain demographics are prone to higher exposure than others.
“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,” a spokesperson for the National Women’s Law Center explains. 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 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,” Dr. Mark Payson, medical director with Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine Northern Virginia explains. “This report is a perfect case study of what can go wrong when there are not appropriate oversights of public 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. HuffPost reports flooding 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.
“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.”