When there’s a health crisis, we don’t think about health economists, and that would be a big mistake. West Virginia University economist Dan Grossman and his colleague at the University of Kansas, David Slusky, were the economists who broke the news in a working paper that the water switch to the Flint River is believed to have affected births and fertility rates in Flint.
When they collected birth record data and analyzed it, what they found was startling. Their results suggested that there was a 12-percent decrease in births, which equates to 7.5 live births per 1,000 women aged 15–49. An estimated 275 fewer children were born in Flint when compared to other parts of Michigan.
While Grossman and Slusky found no consistent statistically significant results on factors such as birth weight, in utero growth rate and estimated gestational age, they did find a 13.4 percent decrease in abnormal conditions such as admission to a neonatal intensive care unit after Flint switched from the Flint River as a water supply in 2015.
“Both the in utero environment and your health at birth can have long-lasting effects,” Grossman said. “And so that’s something that makes it really, really important to look at just because — obviously this is not deterministic — but on the margin when babies are born in worse health, they are at risk of developing later life chronic diseases, they have worse educational outcomes, they have worse labor market outcomes. So I think it’s a really important field of study because of all those things as well.”
Grossman and Slusky published their working paper in September 2017. And there was immediate interest. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services challenged their findings.
“We stand by our findings,” Grossman said. “They had sent us some preliminary findings that they had. They did not actually look directly at fertility rates in that study.”
The work is not finished. They’ll be requesting Medicaid data to examine how babies born whose mothers drank Flint River water are affected through early childhood development.
“I think what comes out of it for us is there is an important regulatory role for the government in these things,” Grossman said. “It’s not necessarily reasonable to expect independent researchers to just show up in a town and start testing the water and release those findings without which you might still have Flint using the Flint River water.”