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MSU researcher finds fault in Flint fertility study

Aditya Romansa/Unsplah
An epidemiologist says he has concerns about the dramatic fertility findings

You couldn’t miss the headlines about Flint’s “fertility crisis” a couple weeks ago. “Flint’s water crisis led to fewer babies and higher fetal death rates,” Science Daily summarized. “An estimated 275 fewer children were born in Flint, Michigan, while the city was using lead-contaminated water from the Flint River, according to new research findings,” the article said.

Now Dr. Nigel Paneth, a Michigan State University professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Pediatrics, is expressing skepticism about those dramatic findings.

“I conclude the data in this paper are an insufficient basis to establish that an adverse effect of the water contamination occurred on rates of fetal death, or on any other adverse birth outcome examined, i.e. birth weight, gestational age, or abnormal conditions of pregnancy,” Paneth writes in a 7-page review released Monday.

The original study came from two assistant professors of economics: David Slusky, from the University of Kansas, and Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University. They released a “working paper,” meaning their research hasn’t been peer reviewed yet or published in a scientific journal.

A spokesman for the University of Kansas says that process is underway: “The paper is currently under review at a leading economics journal,” spokesman George Diepenbrock said via email Tuesday. “We would prefer not to disclose the name of the journal to avoid jeopardizing our chance of publication.”

One of Dr. Paneth’s concerns is that these economists drew their conclusions by comparing Flint’s birth data to other cities in Michigan, which he argues is a kind of apples-to-oranges comparison.

“The claim that the rest of Michigan is economically similar to Flint is, of course, unsupportable…mothers of the non-Flint births used as the central comparison population were more than five times as a likely as mothers in Flint to have a college education.”

Meanwhile, Grossman and Slusky have expressed thanks to Dr. Paneth for “his detailed review of our paper,” but stand by their fundamental conclusion, that the fetal death rate increased significantly in Flint.

“We again greatly thank Dr. Paneth for his detailed review of our paper, and will happily incorporate his suggestions into this and future papers on this topic,” they said in an email via the University of Kansas public affairs office. “We also look forward to future work in this area on longer term outcomes as data becomes available.”

Dr. Paneth is following up with both researchers directly. 

Editor's note: this story has been edited to correct which public affairs office sent the response email. It is the University of Kansas, not the University of Kentucky. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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