Stillbirth rates tied to lead in drinking water

High fetal death rates coincided with releases of toxic metal into Washington D.C.’s pipes

DANGEROUS WATER  The rate of stillbirths increased during two recent episodes of elevated lead levels in Washington, D.C.’s drinking water.


Stillbirth rates in Washington, D.C., rose in parallel with two recent spikes in lead levels in drinking water, a new analysis finds.

Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards and colleagues, in an earlier study, tied a 2001–2004 increase in children’s blood lead levels to a switch in the chemical that Washington’s water authority uses to disinfect drinking water (SN Online: 1/27/2009). After 2004, when city officials warned the public and the utility distributed water filters, blood lead levels fell.

Long-established science suggests that the elevated lead levels should have also increased stillbirths, which are fetal deaths in the second half of the normal 40-week gestation period. The new study, published December 9 in Environmental Science & Technology, provides evidence that such an increase occurred during Washington’s lead crisis. Edwards found that in 2001, Washington’s annual fetal death rate jumped by 32–63 percent relative to the rates in 1997–1999; no comparable increase occurred in Baltimore, which did not suffer lead level spikes.

Washington’s stillbirth rates returned to normal in 2004. But the city’s fetal death rate rose again in 2007–2009, when pipe replacements released lead into some homes’ drinking water. 

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