School-age children in Flint, Mich., registered a measurable decline in academic achievement as the lead crisis there took hold, results that are likely due at least as much to the “psychosocial effects” of the crisis as to the lead itself, according to a paper published in October.
Residents of Flint, a disproportionately Black and poor formerly industrial community, lived with lead-filled water for a year and a half before the extent of the contamination was acknowledged by government officials in late 2015. The city then switched back to its previous source of water.
“At first blush, the Flint water crisis may have appeared as predominantly an environmental health catastrophe, but we believe our results show that there is more to the story,” wrote the researchers responsible for the report.
“The complex community-level psychosocial process that created a crisis surrounding the actual lead exposure played a substantial role in additional to whatever direct health effects lead did have,” they added.
When comparing the academic outcomes of school-age children in Flint to those in other districts, the researchers find a 0.14 standard deviation decrease in math achievement and a 9% increase in the number of students with a qualified special educational need as a result of the water crisis.
“Math achievement in Flint closely tracks the comparison districts from 2006 through 2014, but drops notably starting in 2015,” they wrote.
Notably, however, there is little to no difference in the academic outcomes of children within Flint, whether they lived in homes with lead pipes or with copper pipes, which are safer — even though previous research showed that Flint children from homes with lead pipes consumed 4.5 times more lead per day than children living in homes with copper pipes.
That suggests that something less quantifiable than the measurable amounts of lead are responsible for the Flint children’s academic challenges. As the researchers write, “traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters, are associated with negative psychological consequences to entire communities.”
They cite the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina as events that have been followed by “persistent psychological distress and trauma” to residents.
In addition, other research suggests the Flint children may grow up “stigmatized” by virtue of being tagged as “poisoned” by journalists, activists and other observers.
Still, the researchers write, “From a policy perspective, our findings suggest that existing estimates of the effects of lead exposure on child outcomes may substantially underestimate the overall cost of crises like the one that occurred in Flint.”
Their results also suggest that the dollar amounts currently understood to be the “costs” of the crisis significantly undershoot reality, they say, since those estimates are based on the lead exposure, not the psychosocial consequences.