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By now we were pretty aware of the effect Flint, Michigan's lead-tainted water had on the city's living residents. But what about those yet to be born?
Just last month, researchers found that, following Flint's switch to the Flint River as its water source and altered its water treatment program, fertility rates in the city decreased by 12 percent, fetal death rates increased by 58 percent, and overall health at birth decreased. The question now becomes whether this "horrifyingly large" increase in fetal deaths will lead to more legal liability on the part of the city.
Authors of the study, Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of Kansas University, put their findings in stark terms, estimating that, from November 2013 through March 2015, "between 198 and 276 more children would have been born had Flint not enacted the switch in water." The report also cited previous studies showing that maternal lead exposure is linked to "fetal death, prenatal growth abnormalities, reduced gestational period, and reduced birth weight."
Because Flint was the only city in the area that switched its water supply, and the switch was confined to a specific time period, Grossman and Slusky were able to compare fertility rates and fetal health in Flint before and after the switch and compare Flint's data with surrounding cities. The study found "a substantial decrease in fertility rates in Flint for births conceived around October 2013, which persisted through the end of 2015. Flint switched its water source in April 2014, meaning these births would have been exposed to this new water for a substantial period in utero (i.e., at least one trimester)."
While the majority of fetal injury and death lawsuits are limited to medical malpractice claims, it's not hard to imagine expectant mothers who experienced miscarriages in Flint will try to hold the city liable. In some cases, courts have allowed civil lawsuits filed against those accused of injuring or causing the death of an unborn child.
If those mothers, and other women who suffered from infertility during or after the Flint water crisis, can prove the city owed them a duty of care to deliver lead-free water, and breached that duty, the city may be on the hook for damages from their fertility and fetal injuries.