Water, as we’ve been reminded by the recent hurricane emergencies from Houston to the Caribbean, is a pretty big deal. Your Libertarian sorts actually think it’s an excellent illustration of Libertarian ethics, with the usual Randian screeds about why extreme price gouging is the fairest way to distribute scarce resources (those timely arguments tend to be written by people well away from the disaster zones). This week, another reminder that when clean, healthy water isn’t available to an entire city, very bad things happen. In Flint, Michigan, in April 2014, the water was tainted with lead after a state-appointed emergency manager decided the city could save money by drawing from the Flint River instead of Lake Michigan. To economize further, no anti-corrosive chemicals were added to the water during treatment, which made Flint’s old pipes, many of which had lead solder, leach lead into almost all the city’s drinking water. When people complained about the brown, smelly water issuing from their taps, state officials insisted the water was fine — just a bit of sediment is all. Then the lead levels were shown to be off the charts, and the state finally declared a water emergency in September 2015.
The pipes still haven’t been replaced, although the water is supposed to be safe to drink if run through a good home filter. But now we’ve got more evidence of just how completely Republican officials in Lansing screwed over the (poor, often black) people of Flint: During the period when lead was in the water, the fertility rate in Flint dropped sharply, according to a working paper published last month by health economists Daniel S. Grossman of West Virginia University and David J.G. Slusky of the University of Kansas. How sharply? Women living in Flint had a 12 percent decrease in the “general fertility rate” (GFR) after the change in water compared to nearby areas that didn’t have lead in their water.
In one of the more chilling statements in the paper, Grossman and Slusky offer a straightforward interpretation of the likely cause-effect relationship:
Because the higher lead content of the new water supply was unknown at the time, this decrease in GFR is likely a reflection of an increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages and not a behavior change in sexual behavior related to conception like contraceptive use. Indeed we find that fetal death rates increase by 0.1 deaths in Flint per 1,000 women aged 15-49 compared to control areas, a 58 percent increase.
Nobody knew the water was poisoned for a long time. So that rules out other causative factors. In an American city in the 21st century.
The Washington Post notes Grossman and Slusky found the decline in birth rates was
primarily driven by what the authors call a “culling of the least healthy fetuses” resulting in a “horrifyingly large” increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages. The paper estimates that among the babies conceived from November 2013 through March 2015, “between 198 and 276 more children would have been born had Flint not enacted the switch in water[.]”
And all because the Republican governor, Rick Snyder (who’ll be term-limited out of office next year), wanted to get city spending under control. If there’s ever been a more immediate illustration of “let them die, then, and reduce the surplus population,” we’d prefer not to see it today, thanks.
Here’s a comparison of fertility rates in Flint and the rest of the state; the red line marks the change in water supplies:
If anything, Grossman and Slusky believe their study has probably under-counted the total number of miscarriages caused by Flint’s leaded water, for several reasons:
(1) They do not include abortions; (2) they do not include miscarriages that occur before 20 weeks of gestation; and (3) they are restricted to hospitals reporting these events.”
In 2012, we should note, Gov. Snyder signed what was at the time one of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion laws. We’ll just assume Texas or Oklahoma or Kansas has it beat by now.
The project of rebuilding Flint’s water infrastructure is still ongoing; in March, Mayor Karen Weaver and the head of the city’s project to replace all the underground pipes estimated it would take at least two years before the city’s water would be safe to drink straight from the tap, without filtering.
But that’s how it goes, you know. Flint didn’t have the good sense to be populated by well-off white people, so they should be grateful anyone paid attention to their babies at all. Maybe Fox News will report on Flint and Donald Trump can go out to Michigan to tell the people to obey the laws and not join gangs. That would probably help a whole lot.