New research confirms lead in water causes adverse fetal health outcomes

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A new study has confirmed a causal link between lead exposure and fetal health.

The research, published in Journal of Health Economics,  was conducted by investigators Muzhe Yang, PhD, professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., and Dhaval Dave, PhD, professor of economics at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. In their study, they found prenatal lead exposure increased the chance of low birthweight by 18 percent and increased the probability of preterm birth by 19 percent. 

In their investigation, Yang and Dave used data on the home addresses of pregnant women living in Newark, New Jersey along with information on the spatial boundary separating areas within the city serviced by two water treatment plants. Their study used an external change in the water’s pH level that caused lead to leach into the drinking water of one plant’s service area, but not the other’s to identify the causal effect of prenatal lead exposure on fetal health.

“These findings have important policy implications,” Yang said in a statement, “Especially in light of the substantial number of lead water pipes that remain in use as part of the aging infrastructure and the cost-benefit calculus of lead abatement interventions.”

He added that this is not only happening in Newark but is happening across the United States due to aging water infrastructure. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prenatal lead exposure has been associated with impaired neural development putting children at risk for cognitive impairment later. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that drinking water may account for more than 20 percent of total lead exposure for adults and 40 to 60 percent for infants.

The authors wrote in the study, “drinking water contamination is becoming an increasingly important and widespread source of prenatal exposure to environmental pollution. Between 2018 and 2020, nearly 30 million people received their drinking water from community water systems that were in violation of the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, which sets maximum enforceable levels of these metals in drinking water.”